Take a Break!

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Last week I encouraged writers to submit their writing, but this week I’m going to tell you the opposite: sometimes you just need a break. When I first began learning about this industry, a recommendation was to write daily. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo (insert link), and I struggled with burnout at that word count level. I do try to write daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. Writing is a priority to me, but not over my family, teaching job, and extracurricular responsibilities for the day job (I’m writing this on the way home from a student council conference, for example).

There is no crime in taking a break, and no need to feel guilty–as long as you get back on that horse. Sometimes a break can provide clarity for where you want to take a scene or a character. If you’re at the editing stage, take a break to ensure you have fresh eyes for that manuscript. Even writers who write for a living need to take a break occasionally, as Kristen Kieffer points out on her (massively helpful for writers) website, Well-Storied: I had fallen out of love with my writing  She then shares her “epic mission” to fall back in love with it–definitely worth a read for any writer! Kristen, who also hosts Your Write Dream on Facebook and #StorySocial on Twitter, wrote one of the best articles I read when I started on my journey, “10 Ways to Practice Self-Care as a Writer, that suggests taking breaks as needed.  Head on over to her Well-Storied website and check out her resources!

How Many Rejections Can You Take?

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Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.

When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?

These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.

At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.

What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?

Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.

When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.

So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.

So, my #authorstats? In April, my short story “Downright Devilish” was published in Fourth & Sycamore’s online literary journal. I wrote it in a couple of days but revised it over a couple of weeks. I submitted it to nine different places via Submittable and received four rejections and four non-responses (typically equated with rejections in the publishing world).

I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)

I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.

And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get. 

Plotting vs. Pantsing

nanowrimo.jpgIt’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.

Local Author Fairs

books-bookstore-book-reading-159711.jpegAre you a book lover? Are you obsessed with certain authors? Do you wish you could meet them, have them sign your copy of their book, ask them questions? Then check out some of your local author book fairs! It’s a perfect way to do all of the above AND support the arts in your local community. (Aspiring writers, you should go too! Keep reading!)

While I live in the sticks, I am also within an hour of three large (populations over 100,000) cities. There are a plethora of events among them, typically located at public libraries, community colleges, universities, and bookstores. These provide an excellent way to connect with and support your local writers!

Last November, one public library hosted a drop-in fair to celebrate NaNoWriMo. Six local authors were on hand to sell and sign copies of their books. There was a variety of genres from thriller to children’s, and attendees were also treated to complimentary snacks and drinks.

On the same day, another city’s public library hosted a similar event, this time to help a children’s literacy fund. Authors generously donated a proceed of their sales, and the library advertised it as a way to get some holiday shopping done–simultaneously stimulating the local economy, local authors’ pocketbooks, and funds for the non-profit.

Every local author event I’ve gone to has been free for attendees–and often there are free goodies to be had–from refreshments to bookmarks and other book-swag the authors have available. How cool is it to be able to discover local authors, to talk to them about their work, to discuss their processes not only in writing but publishing? Readers, you might find your next favorite, and never underestimate the importance of readers to writers. Without you, who would read our work? For aspiring authors, this is more than just a networking opportunity. Most people are more than happy to share what their path has been like and may be able to offer you hints and advice for your own journey. For example, I took a community education course taught by Joe Chianakas, author of the Rabbit in Red trilogy. He was instrumental in helping me believe that I, too, could travel down the writing and publication path. Thanks, Joe!

Not sure where to find them? Try bookmarking the local college’s website, and start following social media sites for your public library. Google searches may help you find locations you didn’t even know about. That’s how I discovered one of my now-favorite bookstores, Lit Books, and a super-cool Madison book fair called Madtown Author Daze. You’ll forge friendships with booksellers and authors alike.

On April 7th, my local Barnes and Noble will have several local authors representing everything from young adult to paranormal, including Joe Chianakas, Sylvia Shults, J.E. Mueller, Sydney Raine, Alana Hitchell, Ron Swan, and Dylan Nelson. UPDATE: I just found out there will be TWO DAYS of local-author-goodness happening! The following will be at Barnes and Noble on Sunday, April 8th: Jason HendersonNancy FrantzDemetria WilliamsAnne PetersonJessica PetersonBridget NelanCarrie Lowrance, and Ahaveh Maure.

Readers, have you attended a local author fair? What was the best part? How far would you travel to see your favorite author? What/who would you like to see at one?

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An Excerpt from The Devil Inside Me

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Photo credit: Scott Smith

In honor of the blog being around for two months, an April publication date for a short story, and finally beginning the last third of The Devil Inside Me, here’s an excerpt, introducing Ephraim Trueworthy Webster, our antagonist (though he doesn’t see himself that way). I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!


He was a tall man who looked even taller, cloaked as he was in a long, black duster. He dug in his heels as he took the last two steps to the top of the hill. It was a relaxing view, overlooking the long-abandoned Jilst Saw Mill, headstones dotting the land. The trees along the Suncook River had lost their leaves, allowing the water to come into view. His eyes honed onto a centuries-old carved headstone. He stood in the cold, the mist suspended mid-air. He gazed longingly at the grave, cementing, in his own dark mind, his own dark lineage.

This was it. His life. His liberation. His legacy.

From his stance on the hill, Ephraim Trueworthy Webster surveyed his surroundings. The Gilmanton cemetery was a repository for generations of his family, some of whom likely died at the hands of a blood relative. He could feel that blood running through his veins. He could feel his blood running through his veins. His legacy. And Ephraim Trueworthy Webster was going to revive that legacy for all to see.

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The subterranean lobby of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was crowded on the free admission day in spite of the typical November weather: It was cold, it was damp, and a grey, overcast sky refused to belie the time of day. No, the weather was not the reason for the crowd. The Chicagoans had come out en masse for the opening day of the museum’s newest and edgiest exhibit: DNA and the Devil of the White City. Thanks to a recent docuseries, Dr. H.H. Holmes once again reigned supreme as Chicago’s favorite, and allegedly first, serial killer. Part science and part history–it was, after all, about the technology of DNA collection and examination–the exhibit was also part gruesomeness. The museum’s leadership had finally admitted that murder was fascinating to the public, and it was going to capitalize on this local media sensation by finally creating its first PG-13 exhibit, special ticketing and parent-permission required. Holmes’ mustachioed and unsmiling face stared down at patrons from one of the enormous posters (G-rated, of course) nearly the height of the lobby, with the words “Are you a descendant of this fiendish mastermind?” emblazoned upon it.

As the lobby clock ticked down the four minutes until the doors would open to the museum proper, a solitary man stood outside, pulled his duster closer around him, and leaned against one of the massive Ionic columns that had been architect Daniel Burnham’s legacy for Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This, too, tightened the Museum’s connection to Holmes’ time: It was one of only two buildings from the Exposition that remained in the city, a building contemporary to the years Holmes made Chicago his hunting ground. The front facade with its enormous limestone steps was no longer used as a formal entrance, but the man remained. His coat collar stood turned up. A cigarette faltered between his fingertips. When the 9am clang of St. Thomas the Apostle’s bells rang out, he did not try to enter the museum. When he finally heard the screams, he still did not move, save to stamp out his cigarette.

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The wind was so severe he could see miniature white caps forming on Lake Michigan from his eleventh-floor room at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Ephraim loved the Congress Plaza. Its views of Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain only amplified the architectural detail inside and out, and, when restorations were done to the 1893 landmark, they were truly that: restorations. The Congress Plaza might change out its lobby chairs and bar stools now and then, but even when they did, the velvety ambiance evoked was still that of the early 1900s. Turning pages in an old leather-bound album at the tiger oak desk, his reverie was broken by the harsh sound of a nasally reporter on the television.

“The man who charmed his way into the lives of women he’d murder and money-lenders he’d cheat couldn’t charm his way out of death in 1896. And now that we know the monstrous H.H. Holmes is indeed lying in his grave–surrounded by cement, but lying in his grave–and without even a remnant of his Murder Castle left to be turned into a ghastly tourist attraction, Chicago’s first serial killer is likely to fall back into the quiet infamy from which he came.”

He rolled his eyes upward toward the crown molding, shaking his head. It wasn’t right. There was no “infamy” about H.H. Holmes: he was a mastermind of a murderer. Was it politically correct to say so? No. But that didn’t mean that credit wasn’t due. Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler–they were all ruthless despots, but no one could say that they weren’t brilliant and cunning strategists. The same went for Holmes. Why was it so hard for these television reporters to laud him for that? He continued listening, head shaking slightly in disagreement, but his mind was shifting. He was catching only pieces of sentences, then pieces of words, as his mind drifted toward a recent memory, and he could no longer register anything: the reporter’s mouth moved from words and sounds to shapes and silence. He no longer saw the reporter. His mind was firmly elsewhere–on a hill, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.

Finding the Time to Write (and Read)

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Finding time to write and read can be challenging if you have a full-time job or children to tend to–or both. I teach high school English, and the demands of planning and grading for a writing-focused curriculum (for three grade levels) often cuts into my personal time. This is a way of life for many teachers; it’s just part of the job.

When I decided to be serious about putting The Devil Inside Me out there, I knew I couldn’t just write when the muse showed up. I would need to carve time out of my schedule. I’m a believer of the mantra “we make time for what’s important to us,” and this writing endeavor was important to me.

So, I crafted a schedule of goals for the year. That schedule included research, development of a website, and this blog. Each of those in turn added more to the schedule: trips to Chicago to capture the essence of a building or a nasty winter day, learning how to use WordPress and plug-ins, educating myself on creating a blog that could be meaningful to others. I wasn’t dedicating my “writing time” solely to writing; rather, I was dedicating my writing time to learning about the craft and how to get my work out there. Part of that included setting aside time each week for reading.

We all have challenges that take up writing/reading time. I live in the country. That translates to a 20 minute trip to get just about anywhere; to go to the nearest “city” means 30-40 minutes. (And I don’t mean Chicago–that’s 2-3 hours!) When a fellow writer serendipitously posted on social media that dictation made her commute productive, a light bulb went off. Why hadn’t I thought of that, especially when I listen to audiobooks on long trips? 

My next 30 minute trip into “the city” produced 1400 words. Second trip? 1200.  Third? 1300. I started simply–I’m only using Google Docs and my cell phone’s microphone. Now, this means you’ll end up with text that reads as follows: “ I always had these go floating around in my head goes spooky.” But it’s worth it to attempt to translate myself for the sake of having WORDS ON THE PAGE. Another plus: My inner editor is hogtied because I can’t look at my phone–all I can do is talk. This results in higher word counts in less time.

If you find yourself in your car frequently, perhaps this can work for you too! There are other tools that do a better job than my set-up. Joe Warnimont’s post on The Write Life lists several, including the well-known Dragon Dictation.

Writers, do you currently use voice-to-text to help with your writing? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments!

Readers, do you love audiobooks, or do you need that paper in your hand?

Sign up HERE to get your hands on a snippet of The Devil Inside Me. Subscribers receive additional extras along the way!  

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!