My favorite things of 2013

current music: “Slow it Down” by the Lumineers
current mood: contemplative

(Skipping right past the fact that I haven’t blogged here in months. Refusing to feel guilt about it. Yes. Good.)

Am I becoming an optimist in my ripening age? Or is life just really this good? Because 2011 came and went, and I thought that was a pretty good year. 2012 was even better. 2013 was, by far, the best year of my life. (Don’t break the pattern, 2014!)

Maybe I’m just getting better at Doing Life.

Anyhoo, I wanted to break down the year with the stereotypical list of favorites. Onward, ho!

FAVORITE READS:

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. I read this in one day, somehow ending up on my front porch at midnight for the final chapters, wrapped in a quilt since it was freezing. Cannot gush enough about this book (bonus highlight: having it signed and speaking to Maggie Herself at my local indie bookstore).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This terrified me and made me sob. I walked around in a haze after closing it.

Eleanor and Park and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Both were completely delightful books to read. Just sheer joy.

Splintered by A.G. Howard. This is a book that eighth-grade Lindsay would have killed to read: Alice in Wonderland gone psycho-garden with skateboarding boys and semi-evil, moth-encrusted charmers.

Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Mass. These books gave me massive Book Hangover. You know, where you try to read something else, but you’re not ready to leave the previous books’ worlds behind? I think Celeana Sardothien is my spirit animal.

FAVORITE SONGS:

“Ways to Go” by Grouplove

“Hannah Hunt” by Vampire Weekend

“The Lightning Strike” by Snow Patrol

“Pompeii” by Bastille

“Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons

FAVORITE MOMENTS:

June: the Scottish Festival (where my daughter Finley showed up a group of pre-teen boys with her caber-tossing skills)

September: the annual Park City Library Labor Day Used book sale, where I came home with (cough, cough*) many books
*triple digits*
*that’s specific enough*

May: seeing Vampire Weekend in concert with my siblings and cousins (basically a flood of white people in khakis head-bobbing: best of times!)

August: Finley’s first day of preschool (sigh/swoon)

And, of course, the best moment of 2013 was my querying experience (which I still haven’t written about at length, but will soon!) and signing with my agent, Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency.

The shifting of one year to the next always makes me a bit melancholy. This is unfortunate, since melancholy and grateful make for poor bedfellows. But I truly am so grateful for the year 2013. It was the best year of my life so far.

And guess what? 14 is my lucky number!

I have high expectations for the upcoming year.

HOPES AND DREAMS FOR 2014:

experience the publishing submission process (hint, hint: sell my book!)

run a race (I’m a distance girl, not a sprinter, so I may get brave enough to sign up for a half marathon in April)

write more books

make those books shine

get better at chess (stop judging, I really am that nerdy)

And I think there’s definitely room in my life to do something crazy in 2014. Get that tattoo sleeve I’ve always wanted! Travel! Kiss a stranger!

Here’s to 2014!

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On the Query Trenches

current song: “Gold Canary” by Cloud Control
current mood: flying high

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I have an odd relationship with the slush pile.

I learned what a query letter was, and what it meant, in September of 2011. I was putting the finishing touches on a truly awful YA mermaid novel. I wrote and sent one bad query (breaking ALL the query rules). Then I realized how un-ready I was. Querying feels like standing naked on a stage. You should only climb up onto that stage when you’re at your best. You should feel vulnerable, but strong and capable and proud. I felt none of those things, so I didn’t send any more queries.

Instead I wrote a new book. A middle grade pirate adventure. (Ah, my heart. I love this book, and someday soon I will fix it.) I finished the first draft in November 2011 (NaNoWriMo!), then started revising. I revised. And revised. And revised.

While I revised, I gave myself a crash course in modern publishing affairs via Google University. I haunted writing forums, stalked agents’ every moves online, wrote fake queries then tore them apart, just to see how they worked.

In May of 2012, I applied for a remote, unpaid internship with a literary agent. I had no publishing experience, just a burning desire to learn more about the industry before I stood naked on that querying stage. She took a chance on me, and when I first peeked inside a real life literary agent’s slush pile (a.k.a., e-mail to which she is sent manuscripts to consider representing), I got it.

I wish every querying author could spend ten minutes inside a real slush pile e-mail. Suddenly, it made sense. There are rules to writing a query. Don’t break them, unless you have a good reason to. Sometimes a query has the proper checklist of appropriate contents, but doesn’t click. Sometimes another query is a mess, but it works and your gut tells you, yes, there’s more to be seen here.

And I’m afraid it really is that zen. Yes to this query that committed all slush pile sins; no to that one there looking very smug and shiny and angelic.

This is the first time I’ve actively queried. I wrote about ten drafts of my query letter for HOUR OF THE BEES, my MG contemporary/magical realism with multicultural characters/how much more genre-smashing can I attempt.

The manuscript only took two revisions. The query letter took ten.

But once I was satisfied with it (with the help of very generous strangers in online writing forums), I posted my query on the WriteOnCon forums.

My jaw dropped when two agents requested the manuscript.

So I sent out a few queries.

A few meaning three.

They were meant to be a sample, a test to see how my query was going to fare in the world of publishing.

All three of them requested fulls.

So I sent more.

Fifteen queries I have out, now, and here are my numbers five days in. Four requested fulls. One agent sent a form rejection shortly after. One personalized rejection from an agent going on maternity leave, who asked that I send her the full in six months if I’m still running in the agent-hunt. I haven’t heard from anyone else yet.

I feel like I’ve spent two years preparing for these moments. I know there will come awful rejections, gut-wrenching vulnerability, and moments where I feel personally slapped by professional strangers who I know a lot about, but who don’t know me and don’t care. So  what? This is the world I’m trying to get into.

I also know that my yes is out there. I don’t know who it will be from, but it’s there.

Good night, Neverland.

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Writerly confidence

current music: “Hannah Hunt” by Vampire Weekend
current mood: tired but happy

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I will never understand why people think writing doesn’t require practice. So many believe to write a book, you need a spark of an idea, and a few spare hours here or there to scribble your manuscript. Those things are required, but again, what they leave out is work, work, work.

I took piano lessons starting at age five. When I was twelve, I could sight-read anything I wanted, and play any song by ear. (This isn’t an attempt to brag, just the facts.) I worked hard to get to this point. Sure, I had perfect pitch, and a real innate, maybe-she’s-born-with-it musical instinct. But I practiced for hours every day in order to master this instrument. As I got older, and began sharing my music publicly, the number one comment I got was how sheer and raw my talent was.

Talent took me a long way. Talent let me have an understanding of music akin to a foreign language. But at seventeen, I thought talent was enough to take me the whole way. My hard work diminished–why bother? I had talent! At twenty, I was still coasting on only talent. So a music career never happened for me.

I’ll never stop saying it. The best idea, the most original character, a world better than Hogwart’s (impossible), all of these are a waste if you’re not going to work. Writing great prose takes work. As does querying, and waiting for critiques, and starting new projects. All of it, work.

And in the end, it’s the hard work that separates the wheat from the chaff. There are lots of writers with a smidgen of talent. There are fewer still willing to do the work. Most are content with mediocrity: mediocre writing, mediocre settings, mediocre work.

What a shame.

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Fluke vs. not

current music: “Pompeii” by Bastille (is it possible to be addicted to a song?)
current mood: hopeful

My current work-in-progress, HOUR OF THE BEES, came about in less-than-predictable circumstances.

Reasons I sometimes think HOUR OF THE BEES was a fluke:

-the idea came to me in a flash, like a lightning burst that showed me the beginning, middle, and end in one shot.

-though writing a first-person, present tense, middle grade contemporary with no pirates or dragons or jungles scared me, the whole thing spilled out of me in about ten days.

-I’ll say that again: I wrote it in TEN DAYS.

-the first draft was a pretty clean skeleton of a plot. All I did for revisions was clarify plot points, expand emotions, fix my prose, and read it aloud.

-I was pretty calm as the thing came spilling out. It felt like it was already written, somewhere in the wide open universe, and all I had to do was listen for the echo and put it to paper.

Reasons I know HOUR OF THE BEES was NOT a fluke:

-even though technically it only took ten days to write, that doesn’t account for the year and a half I spent seriously learning writing craft. How did I learn this craft? The old-fashioned way; I tried to write a book and instead floundered in a merciless sea of plot holes, misaligned character stakes, and bad writing “darlings” that needed to be slaughtered by the thousands. When I decided I’d learned enough from that failure, I wrote something else. That something else was HOUR OF THE BEES.

-the idea came fully fleshed-out in a flash because I worked on plot craft for so long. No one’s shocked when a pianist practices theory for years and is able to improvise a new melody; why is it shocking when a writer can produce a decent story?

-I was calm when I wrote it, much like someone sits in the waiting room of a therapist. It’s a nervous calm, a calm before the plunge into your river of personal sludge. HOUR OF THE BEES may appear to be just a bittersweet middle grade magical realism/contemporary book, but it’s actually not. It’s actually the result of me hacking my way through serious personal emotional territory and trying to figure out how I feel about death.

-sometimes as a writer, and just as an imaginer, I use fantasy and adventure elements as escape. I will never pooh-pooh escapism, as I know it’s an important (and fun) part of life. But working on something contemporary? Where the only fantastical and adventurous things are the state of the relationships of my characters and the landscape of their expectations of each other vs. their reality… It may have poured out of me in ten days, but it was a labor. Hard. Every word was toiled over.

-since my vision was a simple story with a simpler story within that story, I had to work extra hard to keep its majesty in check. It’s easy to expand, get bigger, world-build, add, magnify. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep things quiet. Again, like playing the piano. Anyone can bang the keys and play forte. But playing softly and maintaining that level of clarity… it requires a special touch.

I begin querying HOUR OF THE BEES soon. Hold me.

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It has to be enough to just love something

current music: “All I Want Is You” by U2
current mood: pensive (Bono does that)

Creative jealousy is a work-killer. A dream-killer. A soul-killer. The envy that someone else managed to pull off the kind of art you’ve always dreamed of pulling off is the derivative of three things:

1) a false understanding of originality, especially as the idea is applied to writing
2) a leak in your own creative confidence
3) a real selfishness

You can just like something.

Or love it.

You don’t have to make creative clones of your favorite work. You don’t have to fret that someone already “did that.” You don’t have to prove your fandom by producing knockoffs. You can just love something.

Likewise, you don’t have to remake your entire world of elves and dragons just because Tolkien already invented it. You don’t have to move your tent into unstaked territory just because there are others who have already succeeded in doing what you’re attempting. You can have creative peers. Creative lookalikes.

It has to be satisfying enough to quietly, breathlessly love something. A book. It has to be enough to love parts of it. To love all of it. To let it change your life, or just provide a laugh, or make you sneer. You don’t have to be overwhelmed by everything you read to the point that you can’t work without a shadow curling over you.

A post on originality and writing, and why we worry when we shouldn’t, tomorrow.

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A version of “write what you love”

current music: Shrek soundtrack
current mood: a shining calm

A veritable “step one” for any writing project I take on is asking these questions:

Is this main character someone I want to spend massive amounts of time writing? Thinking about? Giving precious action to? Does she scare me? Make me mad? Make me proud? Do I want to live like her? Live vicariously through her? Live nothing like her?

Is my world fascinating? Are there plants and animals in it that make me gasp? Is it pretty? If it’s not pretty, is there some other visceral gut reaction to it? Am I grateful I don’t live there? Or jealous that I’m stuck on this earth, this dimension?

Plot, to me, is flexible, easily changeable. It’s the action, and as the puppeteer of my characters, I can pull their strings however I need to.

But the characters themselves? They are my dancers. And the setting is my stage. Action won’t matter unless the dancers and stage are interesting. The script can always be changed.

Write what you love. Write about the worlds that populate your daydreams and the characters that haunt your nights. How can anyone expect to fill three hundred pages of writing about a world that is humdrum?

I call it “step one” because a fire in your belly is a hell of a motivator. Part of being a writer, and a major factor in whether or not you’ll ever be published, is your work discipline. You have to write, and rewrite, and cut and slash and write more. Unwrite. Edit. Spend hours and days and potentially years in the world you make.

If you’re making worlds and characters that you love, that discipline takes care of itself. Writing about your dancers and stage doesn’t feel like work (i.e., your punishment for creativity); it feels like a reward.

Step one: choose to write a world you love. Choose to populate your works with people you love. or love to hate.

Either you want to spend time in the worlds you make, or you don’t.

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Hello, is this thing on?

current music: beethoven’s pastoral symphony
current mood: post-running high and happy

I decided to make a writing blog, where I can deposit all my little thoughts on craft, the industry, the creative process, and my own works in progress. I get these thought-worms daily, squirming through my grey matter, but none are ever really substantial enough to warrant more than a scribble in the corner of my notebook. Isn’t this why blogging was invented?

Side note: when I decided WordPress was the best option for the kind of word-vomit blog posting I’ll do, I tried to make an account. Turned out I already had one, from a false start years ago.

The url attached to my e-mail? I may not know it all.

This made me laugh out loud. Too, too true.

Welcome to the thought-worm depository. Let me pour you a coffee.

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