Stir It Up

typewriter with paper flying out of itIs 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.

The first is guest blogger Amanda Linehan, who wrote “Writing Outside the Lines” on Lauren Sapala’s kick-butt blog. In it, she discusses how she was a ride-or-die outline user, until–well, until the outline wasn’t helping her. My favorite suggestion that she gave for those who are hesitant was to “try it out with some low-stakes project” like a short story.

The second is K.M. Weiland’s “Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write” over at Helping Writers Become Authors. With sage advice such as “don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle,” Weiland reminds us that “structures aren’t the destination, but rather the vehicle.”

In other words, stir it up, writer friends. If your method is not working for you, try another way. The writing police will not arrive, I swear.

Bootcamp for Writers!

A few people inquired about the bootcamp I mentioned in a previous post, so here are a few details!

Once I decided to treat this writing endeavor seriously, I knew I would have to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Way outside of my comfort zone. I would have to do the unthinkable: share my writing. Gasp! The horror! I would have to seek advice from professionals. I would have to give myself permission to try, to fail, to succeed.

When I was first brave enough to share my writing, I chose with intention: our librarian, who is a former English teacher. My first comment was “be gentle.” Then I turned around and said, “Scratch that. Be brutal.” She was both–and I’m grateful.

Back when the idea for The Devil Inside Me arrived in my head, I genuinely thought I had a good premise that people would enjoy to read and publishers would see as potentially profitable–but, I wanted some type of acknowledgement of that. One day while perusing the blogs on Writer’s Digest, I stumbled across this gem: Agent One-on-One Bootcamp–Your First Ten Pages. Yes, it cost money. No, Writer’s Digest is not paying me for this commentary. Yes, it was worth every penny. (Please note they do not have an active version of this bootcamp at the moment, but I included a link for the description.)

Here’s how it was shaped: You watch a couple of webinars. You edit your first ten pages of your manuscript according to those general-but-detailed how-to-write-a-novel videos. You submit those ten pages to a participating agent. The agent provides you with detailed revision notes. You revise and resubmit. The agent provides you with a last commentary on your revisions.

Why is this valuable? First, I was able to get the confirmation that, yes, I had a sale-able concept. Yes, I have some writing skill–and perhaps more importantly, I was able to revise according to the agent’s suggestions. No one was knocking down my door asking me to send them more, but it did give me the confidence I needed to make sure that I wasn’t on some crazy train to deluded-land.

Furthermore, the agents available were reputable and well-known. Writer’s Digest made it clear who they were in advance, so I was able to research the agency and the agents themselves. I was also able to select which agent I wanted to submit to–who happens to represent (and write) in the mystery genre. 

Clicking send was simultaneously nightmarish and euphoric. Receiving her revision notes was simultaneously defeating and anti-climactic. I must have read the email fourteen times and went through something that felt like the stages of grief in a matter of hours. (Apparently I am not alone: Check out Janelle Drumwright’s Carve post on the very topic.)

You know, denial: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m the next William Shakespeare. Anger: But that point-of-view is an absolute must-have! See denial. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I had… Depression: She’s right. She knows what she’s talking about. I will never be a writer. Acceptance: Hey, she had some positive comments–maybe I should just try revising according to what she wants.

I got over myself. I made the revisions (though I especially despised the point-of-view change) and murdered my darlings. And what do you know? Praise and a comment of “you have a good chance of selling this once you’ve polished” was worth my warp-speed grieving process.

What did I learn?

INVEST A LITTLE

I balked a little at spending the money. I’ve read that you need to invest in yourself and your endeavors, no matter what they are, if you want to move forward and improve. This was well worth the money to give me the boost of confidence that I wasn’t completely out of left field.

I have since invested in paid memberships for several groups that will provide me with networking and conferencing opportunities: The Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Chicago Writers Association, Indiana Writers’ Consortium, and Writers Guild of Indiana. I’ve also invested serious time in prepping this website and blog in the hopes that it will help me spread the word of my endeavors and help others who are on the same path. 

LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS

I also balked a little at the agent’s suggestions. Couldn’t she see my vision? Once I got to the stage where I believed there was no harm in trying, I did just that–and as I made those revisions, I could see what she meant. Furthermore, after the bootcamp, I read my manuscript (still a WIP) from start to finish and was able to revise more problem areas.

DO YOUR RESEARCH–ON EVERYTHING

One of the most important take-aways from this experience was to make yourself as knowledgeable as possible. The internet is a magnificent beast–use it. From creating a website to what to include on blog posts to how to utilize social media to finding an agent to novel length to how to self-publish without getting taken…it’s all out there. I had read reviews on other bootcamps where the agents weren’t known, or they weren’t responsive, or their advice was canned. I dug around until I felt confident that the agents at this particular bootcamp would be what I needed. The more information you can arm yourself with, the better. Just don’t research so much you stop writing!

Writers, what types of classes, bootcamps, or conferences have you attended? What value did they provide you?

Readers, every time we edit and revise, we are doing it with you in mind. What are the most important features of a story for you? Is it the characters? The plot? The writing style? Why?

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

I signed up for a writing conference…what was I thinking?

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When I participated in Writer’s Digest’s First Ten Pages Boot Camp, one of the features was a lengthy, very open Q&A with our critiquing agent. One question posed in my group was this: What, aside from a polished manuscript and a stand-out query letter, can writers do to get published?

Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Services suggested writing conferences. Why wouldn’t you want to meet like-minded people, network with agents and editors, attend mini-classes on everything from finding an agent to reworking point-of-view? 

I began researching (while the introvert inside of me shrieked, “Strangers! Small talk!”) and discovered the Indiana Writing Workshop–not terribly far from me, with a reasonable cost and a featured agent on my dream-agent list. 

In the one day conference, there are opportunities to pitch multiple agents. You can also have Chuck Sambuchino critique your query letter. (I will share the results, no matter how embarrassing.) Classes cover publishing options, finding an agent, a first chapter critique-fest, revising, and marketing.

All of these pieces fit my needs perfectly, so I signed up last month. And now that it’s getting closer, I’m starting to question what the heck I was thinking!

Lucky for me, just like with Lauren Sapala’s serendipitous post last week that fanned the writing flame inside me, a little bit of kismet came my way when I saw this older post from The Muse Crew. (Thank you to D. A. Henneman for sharing the blog link!) Four of the blog’s contributors attended the same conference and reported back for their readers. Here is a sampling of their advice:

“Pitch to an agent in your genre. Research your genre to find out what is currently being sought after, then consider how your story matches. Think of it like a job interview – find out what they want, then share what you have to offer and how you can meet their needs.”

“You have less than 15 minutes to shine, so put your best foot forward.”

“Consider what other popular authors in your genre have a similar writing style to your own. Often agents will ask you about your favorite author or if your writing is similar to any well known author. Agents also like to know if you have published anything else, if you are working on anything else and whether your story is more plot driven or character driven. Be prepared to answer these questions.”

“I highly recommend doing this! It forces you to practice describing your work in a concise way, it gives you an idea if your story ideas are interesting to those who market them…”

While I’m still a little nervous, The Muse Crew’s advice reminded me why I’m doing this. If I want people to read this story, then I have to–gulp–let people read this story.

What kind of experiences have you had at writing conferences? I’d love to hear about them–the good, the bad, and the horrific!

My Writing Is a Mess–and So Am I

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We interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog post to share a must-read from Lauren Sapala: “Writing Is Messy. That’s Just the Way It Is.” Lauren is the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide for introverts, as well as an autobiography, Between the Shadow and Lo. She is also a writing coach whose About Me page says her “blog is meant to nourish, heal, spark, and empower your creative flame,” and she does just that with blog posts such as “Why It’s No Coincidence So Many INFJs (and INFPs) Are Also Writers” and “Coping With Feeling Like You’re Never Good Enough.” How many people–writers or not–need to read that last one?

I had something different planned for a post today, but Lauren’s blog, in conjunction with various writer complaints about motivation and rejection I watched pop up this week on social media, made me feel as if I needed to share this. Right. Now.

First, let me say that I do not know Lauren in any way, short of following her blog for the past couple of months. I also didn’t share with her in advance that I was going to write this post because, well, read on.

In my very first blog post, I shared that I shelved my last attempt at a novel. If I weren’t head-over-heels in love with the current WIP (work-in-progress), I probably would have done the same with it a couple of months ago. I had reached a sticky point–I needed to go back and re-read, find the holes, discover where I was missing some clues, and gasp in horror that I changed the name of a character’s dog three times without ever noticing. (He also went from being a German Shepherd to a black Labrador Retriever in the same space.)

I could go on, but you really don’t want to know. Just ask my critique partner.

The key for me is that I believe in this novel. I believe in the story. I believe in the stories that will come from it. But if I didn’t, I could very easily have said forget it. I know that the writing process is just that–a process, yet mine seemed so very, well, unprofessional. Like I was just piecing things together. Or, as Lauren points out in her blog post: “Finally, I stitched all the pieces together and what I was left with resembled Frankenstein’s monster.”

I re-read, I made copious margin notes, and I started editing. I have finished the first third, which was my stopping point because of a big, gaping hole (and next on my list to write, right after this blog post).

So when Lauren’s glorious blog post arrived in my inbox this week, I read it with my jaw dropped the entire time. It was so incredibly spot on. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t alone.

Writers–especially those of you who, like me, are unpublished, struggling, questioning yourselves–if you read only one thing today or even this week, please read Lauren’s blog post. She speaks the truth about just how messy writing can be, and how we don’t need to doubt ourselves: “…because I had never written a book before, the whole time I was going through this experience I assumed I was doing something seriously wrong…I chalked my struggles up to…being somehow vaguely ‘stupid’.” 

Isn’t it as if she were reading our minds?!?

Which leads me to why I didn’t contact her about this post: I believe that in this world of people trying to sell their services everywhere, it’s hard to ferret out a genuine compliment, a sincere nod of appreciation. I was so touched and empowered by her post that just sharing the link wasn’t enough–I had to share its impact in the hopes it would reach others as it did me. I’m positive that if you read it, it will do the same to you. Share your thoughts with me–and with Lauren!

What Harriet the Spy Taught Me

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A couple of posts back, I flippantly said that if Harriet the Spy was my favorite book in fourth grade, why would I ever deviate from that genre when writing?  To my surprise, a few of you messaged and said that you, too, loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, and before I knew it, I was taking a trip back to where my love of mystery and thrillers began. 

My earliest screen-viewing memories include Clue, Macgyver, The Twilight Zone, and perhaps my favorite as a kid: Murder, She Wrote. When I had to write about the merits of The Scarlet Letter in high school, I focused almost entirely on the who-REALLY-is-the-father mystery and the psychology behind choices made. A good foundation built for my future self as a Law and Order junkie.

And then I discovered Agatha Christie. Maybe it was my Harriet the Spy training (I did run around my grandma’s neighborhood one summer with a spy notebook), but my thirteen year old self had gotten pretty good at solving those Murder, She Wrote episodes. When I picked up Hallowe’en Party, I was blown away. I didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s knowing glances to help me along, you know, and it was Christie’s writing that taught me what close reading really was. I also thoroughly blame her for my initial feelings of inadequacy when contemplating penning a mystery. My feelings were such that my first true attempt at a novel was in a completely different genre. We know where that landed.

When I was doing a bit of research for this post, I found a Writer’s Digest guest column by Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister and The Winter People, in which she says to “think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel…Write what you love.” I only wish I’d found this post a couple of years ago. My current work-in-progress is mystery/crime fiction with a historical twist. I agree with Ms. McMahon: if it’s in your gut, if it’s in your heart, write it. Don’t try to write what you aren’t. Or, as Harriet the Spy’s nanny, Ole Golly said, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Readers and writers, what books have been instrumental in making you who you are? I know there are as many varied responses as there are personalities out there! (And if you’d like to know more about Harriet the Spy, check out School Library Journal’s commentary. If you have kiddos, it’s a wonderful book to share.

Sign up HERE today and receive a snippet of my current project that I am super excited about: The Devil Inside Me.

Murder Your Darlings

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Earlier this week, I focused on the argument of editing while writing versus writing without stopping. Part of that struggle includes editing out pieces that you love but just don’t fit.

I first stumbled across that concept in Stephen King’s book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

That phrase has been attributed to numerous writers over the years, from Eudora Welty to William Faulkner and, of course, Stephen King, but the true credit goes to one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor and writer, who presented a series of lectures in 1913-1914 at Cambridge University about writing (which Bartleby has lovingly preserved here). He said, “To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.”

In other words, just because something sounds fancy does not mean it’s good writing (or good reading). He continued with this snarky gem: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

I’d heard the concept, but I really hadn’t been forced to put it into practice until I signed up for a writing bootcamp. One of the comments from a published author and reputed agent on my writing:? “Too dense.” Dense as in too thick with those $5 words and crafted phrases. My darlings. I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college when my novels professor gave me my first (but not last) B on an essay. One word sat in red ink next to the offensive letter: “Wordy.” I had never received that kind of feedback, and the sting was palpable. My bootcamp mentor and novel prof were effectively saying what Mr. Quiller-Couch had: Write it how you want to write it, but then murder those darlings. Or, as legend Elmore Leonard put it, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

Don’t despair! You can always resurrect those murdered darlings. Cut and paste them all into one place so that, if you find you wished you hadn’t murdered one after all, you can bring it to life again. Mine now reside in a folder punnily named The Dead Files. That file made it so much easier to let go–because I wasn’t really letting go. Resurrection is right around the corner thanks to technology. (Doesn’t that just beg for a post about Battlestar Galactica?) 

Need some help on how to do away with those darlings? Ruthanne Reid shares lovely advice on The Write Practice.  (You should also read her post about Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing.)

Writers, is this your process too, or do you do something altogether different with those darlings when you cut swaths of your work? Comment and let me know!

Readers, have you ever wondered if a piece was cut from your favorite novel? Would you want to read those cut pieces? I’m toying with the idea of releasing some of mine here on the blog. Please comment if that’s something you’d like to see!

To get a free sneak-preview of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. Email subscribers will receive extras along the way! 

Should I Edit While Writing?

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First, can I give a shout out to my first followers? Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your kind words. I’d love to hear your comments here on the blog! If you’d like to read snippets of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. It’s not the same as subscribing to the blog itself–and you’ll get extra freebies along the way in addition to pieces of my novel!

On my last post, I spoke of giving ourselves permission to write–to try, to fail, to shelve that 60,000 words of a novel you faltered on. I also discussed giving ourselves permission to write in the genre that gets our blood pumping. That’s mystery for me–I mean, when your favorite book as a fourth-grader was Harriet the Spy, why would you deviate?

There was something else I had to give myself permission for. As an English teacher, wanting to proof and polish after every 500 words or so is in my nature, but not always conducive to getting my story on paper (or computer screen). Sometimes you just need to get those words down and worry about the grammar perfection and beautiful turns-of-phrase later. In my shelved novel, I would bold the items that needed more detail, or even write research questions right into my text. This resulted in some strange re-reads: Elena and Robert waited for a table at what restaurants are on the San Antonio riverwalk?

Sometimes, though, I felt that this created more work in the long run AND left me with holes in my storyline. (That certainly was not because I wasn’t sure where my storyline was headed…right?) Blogger and podcaster Ryan Pelton acknowledges that others may call him a “heretic” but editing as he goes is his go-to form of writing. In one post, he explains that not editing until the end meant his “motivation to edit went out the window.”

Of course, it’s different for everyone, and, while we’re at it, who wants to define editing? For me, if, when typing out a sentence, one of the resident voices-in-head screamed, “No! Use ELUCIDATE!” I listened. Sometimes the voices-in-head were having a philosophical conversation that was one part Mark Twain saying, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do” and one part high school English teacher asking “What would Strunk and White say?” In those cases, I tried to highlight or bold the problem area and return to it later. Grammarian Liz Bureman says, “If you’re on a four-day creative bender, stopping to edit will slow your momentum and may leave you struggling to pick up where you left off.” Excellent advice for those days we are bogged down by perfection.

When NaNoWriMo time arrived last year–where the goal is to get down 50,000 in one month–I revisited Ms. Bureman’s advice and realized that some days I was just going to need to write for writing’s sake. For some of us, we must force the grammarian in us to allow the creative self to just be. Allow for stream-of-consciousness writing. Allow for mistakes. Allow for imperfections. Allow our creative selves to go where they want to go. The grammar minutiae can wait. And on the days when it can’t, edit as you go. Find what works for you–and that may be different on the daily.

Writers, how do you deal with your inner grammarian whilst writing? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer in addition to a snippet of The Devil Inside Me.

Readers, what are some things you wish writers would edit out? What do you consider “too much” when you’re reading? Is it dialog? Description? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer. Even if you aren’t writing a novel, my Punctuation Primer will help you look like grammar nobility in your emails and posts! You’ll also receive a snippet of The Devil Inside Me!