it never hurts to ask

Back in June, I attended my niece’s graduation on Orcas Island. Orcas is located in the upper northwest corner of Washington State and recently gained some exposure as the setting for Kelli Estes’ debut, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk. It’s an eclectic and tight-knit community, and the commencement festivities showcased that in a dramatic way.

Case in point: Robert M. Gates, former president of Texas A&M and Secretary of Defense to three US presidents, gave the keynote address at the graduation ceremony. The senior class president introduced him. This young man, whose father had retired from state politics in Olympia and moved his family to Orcas several years ago, said he’d been nervous about approaching Gates to ask him to speak, but kept telling himself, “It never hurts to ask.” Listening on commencement day, I’d assumed he’d been acquainted with Gates because of his father’s political connections.

My sister, who has lived on Orcas for almost 20 years, later disabused me of this notion. She told me the senior class president only knew Gates by reputation–Gates has lived on Orcas for many years, made extensive charitable donations to the local school district, and long hoped to be asked to be a speaker. Only when the young man in question approached him, did he have the chance to accept.

His speech, by the way, stands as the best commencement address I’ve ever heard. It spanned generations, and bridged economic, racial, and ideological backgrounds. Sharing deeply personal stories from his own life, Gates inspired all within the sound of his voice to rise above their mistakes and keep working toward their dreams–whatever those dreams might be.

I’ll resist the urge to draw any heavy-handed lessons out of this story; it speaks for itself.

It speaks to me now, as I just sent out my first batch of queries this morning. The worst that can happen is for someone to say no–in which case, I’ll move forward and keep asking until someone does say yes.

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radio silence

I’ve been ignoring my blog. No excuses, because they’re all lame.

It’s such a deeply ingrained pattern at this point, I’m not sure I’ve got the bandwidth to break myself of it. And frankly, writing several different versions of a synopsis and a slew of individually tailored query letters is taking up most of my creative resources. I mean, I’ve written a 78K-word novel–how can it be so mentally exhausting to pump out one- and two-page variations of a story I’ve been eating, breathing, and sleeping for the past three years?

One amazing resource that’s made the challenge considerably easier is this well-conceived article by Susan Dennard over on Pub(lishing) Crawl. Maybe it’s that her all-time favorite movie is the same as mine and she uses it as her example, but the way she dissects the essential points of a tight synopsis is brilliant.

So, if you’re in the same synopsis-ring-of-hell, check it out. And keep fighting the good fight.

Posted in query, Star Wars, synopsis, The Door to Yesterday, writing | Leave a comment

i triple-dog-dare ya!

‘A Christmas Story’

‘A Christmas Story’: the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare

I should know by now any blog post written after midnight runs the risk of being utterly incoherent, but I’m too tired and excited to care. Over the next couple days–probably by the end of Monday–I’ll put the finishing touches on draft 6 of The Door to Yesterday and send it off to the last of my gentle readers.

Very briefly, I considered skipping this final round of beta-reading altogether because after more than three years, I just want to move forward and start querying. I’m aware of how nutty that sounds (bring on the rejection!) but I have faith in my lovely, imperfect little manuscript and in my heart, I believe somewhere out there is the agent who will see in it what I do. So, in the spirit of due diligence, I’m taking the time to get feedback on the rather substantial re-writes I did after my last round of beta-readers.

I’m cautiously optimistic that when this much smaller group of readers finishes, I can incorporate their feedback, polish a new draft, and at last be ready to begin the querying process. I did a lot of work on my pitch last year, utilizing the great advice I got from the Book Doctors during Pitchapalooza. It feels ready (although I’m sure I’ll look back at it someday and think, “What a mess.”)

Being this close to sending out queries, it’s starting to feel more real–even though I still have a long way to go. And I suppose this post is a sort of triple-dog-dare to myself to see it through.

Because I’ve already come this far.

Posted in revising, The Door to Yesterday, Uncategorized, writing | Leave a comment

nanowrimo day 25: why nano?

NaNoWriMo poster03

Confession: it’s day 25 of National Novel Writing month, and I’ve only written 10,500 words–just a fifth of what I’m supposed to have done when it all ends early next week. If you’re judging by word count alone, then I’m not doing so hot. Am I fussed? Not a bit. And here’s why: I’m all about lowered expectations.

The first time I heard of NaNoWriMo was eight years ago on my friend Kim’s blog. Kim is legit; I’ve known her since 7th grade and even then, she could write. I mean write. (Seriously, check out her most recent post on Syrian refugees. And grab a hankie.)

So when she talked about penning a 50k-word novel in a single month, I thought, “Well, of course Kim could do that.” At the time, I was writing strictly poetry and the notion of cranking out an entire a novel in 30 days seemed beyond anything I could ever do.

Flash forward six years to 2013. I now had several years of NaPoWriMo under my belt–30 poems in 30 days, in case you were wondering–and the thought of doing insane amounts of creative writing in a compressed time frame seemed more attainable than before. I wanted a break from poetry and the juices of a story had been percolating in my sleep deprived brain. In a fit of insomnia, I’d written a prologue and a handful of chapters. I had a great idea, but after several months of being blocked, I was struggling to summon the momentum to move forward.

Then NaNoWriMo popped up on my radar again, and it was just what I needed to recommit. I’d already started the story, but I thought, “Why not? I don’t have to worry about writing a whole new book; I can just pick up where I left off.” Which is just what I did. By the end of November 2013, I’d pounded out an additional 19,000 words and was more than 2/3 of the way through my story. With that momentum, I pushed through and finally finished my first draft in mid-April of 2014–more than a year after I started–but still, I finished.

During last year’s NaNoWriMo, I started on the sequel to my first book and clocked in at just under 15K words. Then in June, I scrapped everything I’d written during the previous eight months and started over with a different idea for the sequel. All told, 2015 has been a challenging year for me and my kids with homeschool, and that’s cut into my writing time. Before November, I wrote the first seven chapters, and during the course of this month, I’ve written another six.

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and gotten more active in my local WriMo community. I went to a local write-in at a coffee shop a couple weeks ago and was surprised by the boost I got from spending time with other WriMos–talking plot, research, and revisions–even though I got no writing done at all. Solidarity. It was exhilarating to come home feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself, since writing is usually such a solitary pursuit for me.

Between teaching and raising my kids (aged 12, 8, and 4), housekeeping, and some volunteer work I do in our church and community, I don’t have a lot of spare time. I do most of my writing at one end of the day or the other, when my kids are in bed, and it’s dark and quiet enough to think. I don’t have the luxury of hitting a 1,500 word par most days, and I’m okay with that. I make NaNoWriMo work for me because if I write 50K or 19K or even just 15K words during the month of November, it’s that many more than I had in October.

I just keep putting one word in front of the other until I have a page, a chapter, a first draft.

That’s why I NaNo.

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writing roots, part 3: reconnecting

photo credit: jdurham, MorgueFile Free Photos

photo credit: jdurham, MorgueFile Free Photos

During the ten years I worked my way through college–holding down a full-time day job while taking mostly evening and weekend classes–I took a long hiatus from poetry and the other creative writing that fed my soul. I kept telling myself, with all the studying and research papers, I just didn’t have time. In truth, a more sinister notion worked at me beneath the surface: I had lost faith in my creativity. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe what I wrote for pleasure wasn’t good enough.

Recently, I heard an excerpt of Ira Glass talking about creativity in which he explained how many creative people experience a gap between ability and taste level. He said that disparity is the reason so many talented individuals give up and stop realizing their ideas. It’s a brilliant interview; you can read the transcript of the section I’m talking about here. That disconnect is exactly what happened to me.

Around the time my oldest son was three, I realized my own detachment from creativity was sucking the life out of me. I had lost touch with myself, with who I had always thought of myself as being. And so I began writing again one or two days a week, early in the morning while my little ones slept, because that was when my mind was clearest and I had uninterrupted time to myself. Slowly, the volume of work Ira Glass talked about  started to accumulate.

Several years ago I also launched a poetry group with four other poets. They taught me a great deal about revising and being willing to listen to other perspectives on what I’d written. That’s when I discovered how good writing takes time, going over and over the words until they are just right. I also learned if I was writing for an audience–which I am–I had to be willing to check my ego, get feedback from them about what worked and what didn’t, and then revise with that in mind. My fellow poets asked questions which forced me to approach my work in ways I’d never have thought of on my own, and which in turn led to even better end results.

My biggest breakthrough in this process of reconnecting to my identity as a writer has been learning how to suspend perfectionism during the time I sit down and write a first draft. I lock the editor in my head away (kicking and screaming through a strip of duct tape) in my imaginary closet, so I can get down on paper what is in my heart. My head and my heart both have a place in my writing process, but they work best separately. During the first draft of anything, I write for me, without any pressure to have perfect words spring in fully-formed glory from my pen.

For me, this mental shift has made all the difference in being able to close the gap between my ability and taste level.

Posted in creativity, poetry, writer's block, writing | Leave a comment

Taking my own advice

photo credit: Ursula Graham, Dreamstime Stock Photos

photo credit: Ursula Graham, Dreamstime Stock Photos

Exactly a year ago, I wrote a post in which I told my friend that some of my best advice to start writing and stay writing was to “make an appointment with yourself and keep it.” The advice was and still is sound, but ah, the hubris.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, admitting I’ve failed to take my own advice. And yet, I’m okay with both failure and swallowing my pride because after an agonizingly dry summer, I’ve written 1100 words in the last week.

And that feels so, so good.

In Samuel Beckett’s immortal words, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” If you, too are struggling with writer’s block, just remember to keep on failing and trying again.

You are not alone.

Posted in writer's block, writing | 2 Comments

lessons learned from pitchapalooza

photo credit: fré sonneveld, via snapwire

photo credit: fré sonneveld, via snapwire

When I woke up this morning, Pitchapalooza had already ended, with winners announced. Participating has been a ride from the get-go. The euphoria of being selected as one of 25 contenders. The discomfort of stepping outside myself to ask friends, family, and total strangers for support. The up-and-down of watching my pitch pull into the lead, fall behind, then rally, a dozen times during the past two weeks. The disappointment of defeat, combined with relief that now I can return to life as it was before–no more fixating on how many votes do I have, will my pitch be chosen?

I decided early on that win or lose, I’d think of this as a learning experience. If you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo’s Pitchapalooza, it’s a great opportunity to do just that: learn. Read up on the Book Doctors pitch advice ahead of time. Research what contestants in previous years have submitted. Fine-tune your pitch before you submit it, utilizing the suggestions the judges gave prior participants, because the principles remain the same. Keep your expectations realistic. You may not win the fan-fave category or be chosen by the Book Doctors, but the guidance and experience you get will help you learn to put failure into the proper perspective, and add some key gadgets to your writing toolbox.

Here are my take-aways:

Reach out. I’m an introvert who’d argue John Donne to the death that yes, I am an islandbut being unwilling to leave said island would ultimately lead to me remaining alone with my books. Since I want other people to read them I must, by necessity, journey to the mainland. I’m at such an early stage in the process of writing and getting published, that creating an author platform still seems nebulous. To get my feet wet, I entered a contest–which was pretty painless up front, because it required minimal human interaction. Entry was only the beginning; once I was a participant, I had to step up and beat the bushes. Facebook, Twitter, my blog, sending out emails–and lots of chatting people up in person. While I abhor small talk, I do love to talk about my book, so my first taste of networking turned out to be easier than I expected. And more fun. Now, I’m actually looking forward to marketing my book. Wait. Okay, I’m dreading it less. Yeah.

Be grateful. Every participant received a personalized critique of their pitch, and the counsel the Book Doctors gave me was tremendously useful. They showed me where I was already on the right track, while pointing out areas that needed to be beefed up if I hoped to get the attention of prospective literary agents. On another note, as the contest progressed, I was amazed at how many people were genuinely encouraging, asking where they could buy The Door to Yesterday. My friends, my family, folks in my community–everyone was so supportive. I tried to thank as many of them personally as possible, by responding to every post and re-post by name. Reminding myself of how grateful I felt for everything I’d already received, helped me keep it all in perspective whenever I started to worry about the possible results of the contest.

Be teachable. I’m a solid writer, but as an author, I’m a beginner. The only things I know about publishing, I’ve learned on the internet. Which means I know nothing. This process has taught me a lot about being willing to learn from the people judging the contest, my fellow writers, the process itself. Gloria Chao, the winner chosen by the Book Doctors, deserved to win: she had a well-written, engaging pitch. I admit, it made me want to read her book. She has the writing chops to back up her win and I’m studying what she did well–along with the pitches of all the other participants–so I can implement those principles as I rework my own pitch. This is just the beginning, and if I want a career with longevity, I’ve got to keep on learning, continuing to be humble.

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. When a near competitor in the fan favorite race started following me on Twitter the second day into the contest, my gut told me not to be flattered. And I was right.

Let it go. No–not like Frozen, with angst and swirling snowflakes. Being a grown up means recognizing that control is an illusion, that I can’t force the outcome I wish while staying true to myself. I did what I could do: I wrote my best, put me and my book out there, and fought fair.

At the end of the day, I can live with that.

Posted in life, NaNoWriMo, pitchapalooza, writing | Leave a comment