I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

In college, I studied English. This probably made sense to all the people around me, as I’d spent most of every day in High School reading and writing. I suspect that I was probably called by people who didn’t know my name, “That girl in the mom jeans who writes all the time”. I’d dreamed of publishing a book of my very own for years.

But honestly, I’d fallen into my major more by accident than any kind of plan. I thought about going pre-vet, but I signed up for classes so late in the spring before my Freshman year that none of the critical classes were open, and I would have no choice but to spend an extra semester on it. I took classes in Forestry, but the focus seemed to be mostly on cutting trees down rather than protecting them. I spent a lot of time taking Geology (so much that I almost snagged a minor in it) but eventually wandered away from it, terrified of all the math classes I’d have to take to earn a degree there.

I had taken AP English in High School, and had so many credit hours in English already completed when I started college, that I figured I might as well major in it. And so I graduated, a little bewildered, with an English degree that included a concentration in Creative Nonfiction – nonfiction being another area I’d stumbled into entirely by accident, because the Creative Fiction class was never, ever open by the time I signed up for classes.

I spent no time asking my creative writing professors how I might establish myself as a writer. This wasn’t, after all, my plan. I was just letting the currents swish me to whatever end they might. I regret that I didn’t do a little bit more, because it would have been so very, very simple, but I just didn’t have a plan.

So, I left college with my BA in English (with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction) and managed to snag a job at a company that claimed not to be a call center, and was mostly not a call center, but I also spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, calling people. It was at this point that I discovered that calling people who I don’t know on the phone gives me horrible anxiety.

I retreated, and at about the same time my husband commissioned as an Officer in the US Army. He received orders to go to Washington State, and I went along with him. A little piece of detritus swirling along in the stream.

It was time, I decided, to write a novel. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I got to work.

That first draft was a really strange collision of the principles I’d learned in Creative Nonfiction classes, and the sci-fi action that I loved the most. I figured that I could apply my freshly formalized literary sensibilities with the science fiction genre, and boom. I’d be crazy successful.

I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood yet, much to my detriment

I crawled through that first draft, and by the time I finished it I knew it was utterly awful. Demoralized, I put it away. Not only had my English degree failed to get me a decent job, it had also let me down in the writing of novels.

Eventually, I came back to it, shook out the dust and the spiders, and tore half the novel out. The other half, I rewrote. I edited everything. And feeling I could do no more, I submitted it to some literary agents.

The rejection letters poured in, and rightfully so. Passive voice and adverbs riddled my sentences. I disobeyed the law of “show, don’t tell.” And in my query letters, I couldn’t state the central conflict of the story. The package I sent out wasn’t my best work, and I hadn’t learned the industry nearly well enough. I retreated, and evaluated how to fix the problems that had resulted in so many firm “no”s.

At first, I didn’t make much progress. I felt like I’d been cheated in a million different ways. No one ever told me it would be this hard. My education had failed me. My skills had failed me. After years of work, I’d taken my chance, and I’d fallen flat on my face. I was bruised, and the idea of writing for fun, some days of writing at all, seemed like something that would only happen to other people.

But of course, I kept going forward, and very slowly I realized that all the failures I’d encountered belonged to me. Not to my bachelor’s degree, or my instructors, or agents, or the industry.

I’d placed too much of my identity on getting published – not on being a writer, not on telling stories, but rather on getting a book on the shelves of bookstores. I hadn’t had fun writing anything in years. I’d stopped crafting scenes that I liked, and started crafting scenes that I thought others would see as intelligent, as skillful. I’d lost my perspective on why I had started writing in the first place.

I realized that I had to start all over again. That I had to approach my writing in a new way, like I was coming at it for the first time. I had to learn to find what it was about writing that had made me start, and that had made me commit so much time to it.

So, I pushed out of my head all my ideas of getting published. I established some time to write during my days, at the same time every day, and didn’t worry so much about writing outside of that time. I took the pressure off, and I started writing for my own enjoyment again.

It took a long time, I’ll admit, to get out of that “must-get-published” mindset. It’s a strange tight-rope to walk, to strive for enjoyment in what I write, knowing that if I don’t enjoy the process no one will enjoy the reading, while simultaneously striving for improvement in my craft. Some days I still lean too far one way or the other. Some days I grow anxious and annoyed if I don’t get enough work done. Some days I obsess a little too much over my e-mail, waiting to see if my next word from an agent will be a rejection letter, a request for manuscript, or that dreamed-of offer. And some days, I don’t work hard enough to make sure that the writing time happens.

And gradually, I started enjoying my writing time again. It wasn’t just something I did because I had to do it. It was something I did because I enjoyed it. I stopped feeling stress every minute of the day, and I started to feel like I had a life again.

My writing became a place where I explored my thoughts about the world around me, where I took off on the impossible adventures that I love experiencing in the books that I read. I’m still not quite where I used to be, but I’m getting closer all the time.

What helps is knowing that if I keep working, and I keep writing what I enjoy writing, then someday what I’ve written will speak to someone. Even if it’s just a tiny group of people, then that will be valuable. It’s for them, this imaginary, tiny following, for whom I keep to my schedule as much as possible. That I keep sending queries, that I keep working to improve.

It’s for myself that I keep writing. Because getting words on paper, telling stories, taking journeys with my characters, is what I love to do above almost anything else.

 

Personal Life Update: I recently started a class on JavaScript. This is a very new thing to me – I’ve never done any programming beyond a little bit of HTML when I was in High School, which feels like forever ago. I definitely won’t be having as much time to post here for a little while, which is sad, but I’ll be learning brand new things, which makes me very happy.

Hopefully, when I get back into my regular rhythm of writing and blogging, it will be full of new and helpful knowledge. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading.

When I Met Princess Leia

The first time I met Princess Leia, I was in fourth grade. My little sister’s third-grade class was on a huge Star Wars kick, so she picked up A New Hope at the local video rental shop. On a Friday night, she popped the cassette into our VCR, expertly fast-forwarded through commercials, and hit the ‘play’ button right at the opening scroll.

I don’t know at what point I got hooked. It might have been John Williams’ opening fanfare. Maybe it was just the fact that A New Hope threw me right into the action. There was no need to explain who The Galactic Empire was, or The Rebel Alliance. They were fighting, and look, there goes a spaceship! The film was filled with strange creatures, intriguing characters, terrifying enemies, and awe-inspiring weapons. That first viewing launched an obsession that has stood the test of time.

By the time I was in fourth grade, I was already pretty jaded about gender roles. I didn’t play with any of the girls in my class, because acting out real-life scenarios, like cooking dinner or sweeping floors, felt a whole lot like work. The boys might let me re-enact the most recent episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but Catwoman usually took a backseat to the fights between The Dark Knight and The Joker, and within minutes I was a forgotten figure, practicing cartwheels in the grass.

The first sight of Princess Leia in A New Hope didn’t inspire me. Ah. A pretty girl in a white dress. Other than her earmuffs-on-steroids hairstyle, she could have stepped right out of the type of movie where the ladies break out into song about how great it would be to find a nice prince and settle down on a planet with a good education system and live happily ever after.

I probably should have noticed that she was sneaking around on a ship that was under attack by the fearsomely dressed Darth Vader, but hey, I was a fourth grader.

I started to reevaluate my opinion when she shot her first stormtrooper.

Then she went toe-to-toe with the baddest bad guy I’d ever seen. Held captive, diminutive compared to the armored man towering over her, she stood defiant. She responded to his booming voice with courage, and even sass. Didn’t she know that he’d just strangled one of those guys in the funny white helmets? I was scared of Darth Vader, and I was separated from him by a TV screen. Princess Leia, though, seemed more irritated than anything else.

Over the course of A New Hope, Leia kept defying expectations. When threatened with Alderaan’s destruction, her fear was palpable. She mourned her people, her culture – everything that had once been her life.

Han Solo’s reaction to her, as she takes charge of her own rescue mission and orders him to jump down a garbage chute, is perhaps most fascinating. The self-assured, universe-weary rogue stares in wonder. A damsel, yes. In distress, not so much.

I think it’s really easy to forget how revolutionary Princess Leia was, how revolutionary she still is. How many other characters, male or female, dare to rage across the screen as she did in anything other than a moody drama? A million copies have been tried, and a million copies have failed to capture the spirit of the original. Princess Leia stands alone, driven by an inner fury, a singular purpose.

I’ll admit that I didn’t appreciate Princess Leia throughout my Star Wars drenched youth. I wanted too much to identify with the Jedi. The idea of The Force was intoxicating, the buzz of a lightsaber like music. That was what I wanted, and so Princess Leia fell into the background. It was Luke Skywalker I followed most closely, and later, as I delved deeper into the canon, Mara Jade. Anyone who didn’t wield a lightsaber or connect to the power that bound together the fabric of the universe seemed far less interesting to me.

And yet, always Leia was there, and as I got older, I came to appreciate her more and more. Of all the primary characters in the Star Wars universe, she has by far the greatest leadership skills. She commands armies that fight incredible odds against the encroaching darkness of the Empire. She never backs down when she is called on to lead. And she’s never afraid to make bold choices or take risky shots.

She calls upon a friend of her father’s, whom she has never met, to help combat a weapon capable of destroying planets. She jumps down garbage chutes, refuses to abandon the base on Hoth until the last possible moment, disguises herself as a bounty hunter to rescue Han Solo from Jabba’s Palace. She does everything with admirable courage, as well as cunning reason. Maybe Luke Skywalker wasn’t the best choice to be trained as the last Jedi Knight after all, though I suspect Yoda would have found a much more infuriating student in Leia.

These days, as excited as I am to see Rey on the movie screens, as thrilled as I am to see a Jedi Knight of my gender wielding a lightsaber and The Force, I am equally excited to see General Organa Solo. Still commanding armies in the fight for galactic freedom, still dealing with the drama of being a Skywalker with her head held high. It is Leia who, of all the characters in Star Wars, seems the least escapist, the most grounded in a life that looks familiar to me. Yes, she is a high-level politician, but she is also a decision-maker, someone who must face reality as it is, and find the best way through. This can’t be said for many of the characters in the galaxy, who constantly retreat for training, or to recover from massive mis-steps.

I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker.

 

I think it’s the rage, honestly. When I was younger, I was an idealist. Among my friends, I was the most likely to bewail, “But why can’t we all just get along?” I was most likely to quietly explain my Zen point of view when everyone else raged about the difficulty of one of our teacher’s quizzes.

Somewhere in the midst of my young adulthood, I lost my grip on that Zen, and when I did, I found a well of something hot and, to me, terrifying and uncomfortable. I found myself angry at the fact that things hadn’t worked out the way I’d thought they would. The universe, it seemed, had turned on me.

But I shoved that anger down, because it makes people uncomfortable. It didn’t take me long to recognize that. Yelling was not appropriate, was not cute, was a little bit scary. So, as much as I could, I swallowed it. I learned to work through it, to look at things differently, to adjust my expectations.

Now I wonder – would Princess Leia have done all that, or would she have fed her rage and used it to power through, until she set things back on the course she wanted? Probably a little bit of both.

Leia rises up above the title of Princess, and becomes something else. A woman willing to lead, willing to take risks, a woman who refuses to run or back down. More than perhaps anyone else in Star Wars, she fights, unceasingly, for what she believes in. And these days, it is Leia whom I admire most.

The View from Right Here

The View from Right Here

It’s really easy, as an unpublished author, to get caught up in dreams of the future. My goal for a long time now has been to find an agent, find a publisher, and get my work on the shelves. It’s something I’ve imagined since junior high, something I’ve worked towards for years, now. I want to tell my stories to other people, to hear that they’ve enjoyed the journey, or best of all, that it made them think. Or even that they hated it, though that is less desireable.

I want more than just to write. I want to be read. And more than to be read, I want to have a conversation with people. I want them to know my characters, I want them to go on this adventure with me. I want to know what they think might happen next, how they relate to my story, whether or not it has any meaning to them.

So, in some ways, it’s a bit like torture, to have written so much (I’ve finished one novel in a series, and the first draft on the second novel, and I’m working on a third and totally unrelated manuscript, now) and still have only a few readers among my close friends.

But, this is no way to live as a writer, constantly querying and waiting for responses, waiting for that chance to move on to the next step. It’s a recipe for complete frustration. So, I’m trying to cultivate an appreciation for where I am right now. I’m trying to learn to appreciate the view from right here.

 

It’s All Mine

What good is there, in being an unpublished writer? What good is there in existing in this state of longing, without any idea of what might happen next?

First of all, I can write selfishly. I can work on making exactly the kinds of stories I want to make, without the expectation of an audience. No one is standing over my shoulder, anxiously waiting to see the next page, the next paragraph, the next novel, filled with ideas of what it might look like. I can explore every little side path on the way, I can indulge in the kinds of writing I like the best, and no one can tell me that I should do otherwise. I am my only critic and I am one of a very small group who is attached to my work.

If a scene wanders off into strange territory, I am still writing to an amorphous, imagined audience. I don’t have to question what they might think. I don’t have to worry if they’re going to find that scene or that character’s actions difficult to believe. Because I know when I start thinking about that, the way I write will change, and the paths I decide to take will be different.

If what I want to write is a long, dialogue-free scene about a character wandering through the forest and contemplating the meaning of her choices, I can. I can appreciate how beautiful a scene like that is, without worrying that it doesn’t fit the overall tone of the book, or that it isn’t what my readers expect. I might have to cut it later, but for now I can write it, fully invested, because it’s what I want to write. I can describe it down to the pebbles in the creek where she stops for lunch. I can detail everything she eats, and never wonder if perhaps it’s a little silly.

So, there is undoubtedly a freedom to being an unpublished author. I’m under no obligation to please a large audience. No one is investigating my work, seeking minutiae to critique, the places where my voice rings false, the grammatical errors, the plot holes. It is only my own criticism that matters, at this point, mine and the occasional beta reader.

 

Room to Fall

Then, there are the mistakes. For now, I’m allowed to make them in front of a small audience. When my writing is very bad, when I put on paper a character who isn’t as rich and complex as I’d like, it’s a small audience that witnesses my errors. When I write something downright confusing, I still have time and space to go into my manuscript and make improvements.

I can take risks, without concern about what my critics will say. I have room to learn new techniques, with no agent, no editor, no publisher, no audience to tell me what direction I should take, what makes for a good voice or style. There is a place in my writing for falling down and getting back up, unseen.

Yes, this means there are very few who can tell me exactly where I might be going wrong, or exactly how to fix it, but it also means I can learn for myself. There is a frustration in that, but also joy, and ownership of success when I get it right.

I like writing without the burden of abundant criticism. Yes, those critiques are necessary to making progress in writing, but some of them are just plain wrong. Like that time I was told by a critique partner that I ought to read George R.R. Martin to learn how to build descriptions.

Yeah, I’ve read George Martin, and while what he does is incredibly good, it’s not my style, and not what I’m aiming for.

It’s tough, though, to sort out the useful criticism from the bad, and even knowing that some of the critiques I’ve gotten have been way off track, it still stings a little. I’m not trying to write Game of Thrones, but the fact that someone found my writing lacking, even if their suggestion for fixing it was awful, isn’t so easy to deal with.

So yes, being able to make mistakes in my own time, and being able to correct them as I prefer, is a huge advantage to being a writer without an agent, without a publisher, without a paying audience.

 

Writing in Shadows

Then, there is the wonder of possessing a secret, a secret that most of the world doesn’t even know to ask about yet. I hold my books, all the events in them, and all the places where they might go, in my hands and in my head. It is in my power to talk to my friends and family about the story that I’ve written, but I don’t.

This is mostly because I’m a writer, and not because I love keeping secrets. I am actually a terrible secret-keeper, under most circumstances. The only reason my stories aren’t bouncing out into the world is because I can barely string together the words to describe the plot without a piece of paper in front of me. I write better than I talk, and so for the most part what I’ve written is locked away.

Still, it is all my secret. Every word, good or bad, still belongs to me and no one else. And there is something special, rare, and wonderful in that knowledge, even as I experience the frustration of being in a fandom of one. All the rough edges and all the beautiful moments lie in the dark, known only to me. They are mine, as wholly as an unborn child belongs to its mother.

 

The Mundane

Finally, there are all the obligations of being a published author – a successful published author, anyway. The public appearances, the book signings, all the I-don’t-even-know-what. I can see, even from where I stand, that being an author is about a whole lot more than just writing whatever you like. There are other people to please, and many places to go.

Right now, I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, typing up my meandering thoughts on what I like about my current writing life. I’m wearing Yoga pants, my sweater (a blanket with sleeves, if we’re being really honest), lunch beside me, my kids playing nearby. It’s not ideal for concentration, perhaps, but it’s comfortable. Far more comfortable than having to go out in the world and convince other people that my book is one they want to put on their reading list.

I’m more than willing to do all these things when the time comes, but for now, it’s nice that I don’t have to.

 

Going Out

I look forward to that brave and wonderful moment when a book that I’ve written goes out into the world. I don’t think I will ever stop seeking that achievement. I’ve certainly pursued it longer than I imagined I would when I started on this journey.

But I also am trying to savor where I am right now. I’m enjoying the freedoms that I have, the comfortably obscure corners in which I write. Because the view from right here isn’t so bad.

Quick Meals for Busy Days

For most of my life, I ignored the daily task of cooking. It seemed like a dull job, and one that I didn’t care to spend much of my time on. Other people threw pasta into boiling water, broke ground beef into bits, and baked potatoes, and I was fine with eating whatever resulted.

This sounds a little snooty, I guess, but the truth is that cooking wasn’t something to which I gave any thought. Food happened, I ate it, and that was that. When I needed to make food, I usually dumped it out of a can and threw it into the microwave. I went a long time surviving on ramen noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, spaghetti, and Campbell’s soup.

This is a radical change from the way I eat, now. Right this very moment, the smell of baking bread is wafting through my house, a loaf that I made from scratch. I can roast whole chickens; make my own broth; whip up cookies, cupcakes, and ice-cream; and even serve up fresh, home-made pasta noodles. If I have a recipe for it, I can make it, and sometimes I can make it even if I don’t have a recipe.

It turns out I love delicious, complicated food.

Of course, as much as I would love to have hours every day to work on cooking breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, the reality is that I don’t. There are diapers to change, books to read, walks to take, letters to learn, laundry to do, a job to prepare for, and stories to write. Sometimes I look at the clock, and I can’t believe that dinner time is fast approaching. And if I’m in the middle of an intense writing sprint, then I definitely have to cut down the time that dinner takes.

When life gets busy, though, I have built up a list of recipes that I turn to that are super quick while still satisfying my foodie needs. And now, I will share those recipes with you. Also, so I can look at this page when I’m trying to remember all these amazing meals.

First up are a few recipes from the site Half Baked Harvest. This is my go-to site when I want a recipe that is rich and flavorful, and Tieghan Gerard has never let me down. I’m eagerly anticipating the upcoming cookbook, which is guaranteed to be packed with delicious food.

A lot of recipes here are longer and complicated, but a few of them are so ridiculously fast, and these are the ones I go to when I’m busy.

15 minute Bangkok Peanut Mango Pasta is low in ingredients, really fast to throw together, and also delicious. I’ve even substituted soba noodles for the pasta, which makes it even faster, and it came out great.

Fast Recipes for Busy Writers - Peanut Mango Pasta
Oh so tasty.

If hearty Italian fare is what you’re craving, then Crockpot Tuscan Sausage and White Bean Ragu with Buttered Gnocci just cannot be beat. It takes a little planning to get everything in the slow cooker in the morning, but then in the evening you just need to cook up some gnocci (or if your family hates gnocci like my very strange family, any other kind of pasta) and scoop the sauce on top. This meal is ridiculously decadent, good enough for guests, hearty enough to serve a crowd, and just plain delicious.

Then, there’s Crockpot Salsa Verde Chicken Pozole, which is not only fast, it’s also fun to make. You need a food processor for this one, or you can cheat and buy canned salsa verde. I do recommend trying it as written at least once, though, because that fresh-roasted salsa verde is awesome.

If you want to explore some more, then here’s a whole listing of all the quick recipes from Half Baked Harvest. Just try not to drool all over your keyboard as you scroll through.

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Okay, I’m back from scrolling through all that beautiful food photography.

If you’re looking for something even faster that you also want to eat on a hot summer day, then the Greek Tortellini Salad from Two Peas and Their Pod is great. It is also a huge hit with my kids, once Little Dude has picked out the tomatoes. The Hubs picks out the cucumbers. He says the smell reminds him of copperhead snakes, which I say is weird.

Some other basic recipes that come together super fast, but are still satisfying include baked potatoes with toppings (I always follow Alton Brown’s method, and my potatoes come out great every time), veggie and cheese frittatas, and lentil beans over rice with naan on the side. All of these recipes are incredibly versatile, adaptable to a wide range of flavors and ingredients, and are also satisfying. When I’m cooking for my family, these are all necessary qualities.

As for that bread I talked about earlier, I often follow standard recipes because my stand mixer does such a great job taking care of the kneading that I don’t expend much effort. But, when time is lacking, I love using the recipes in the book The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. The theory is that one can stir together a huge batch of very wet dough, let the yeast go to work for a couple of hours, and then throw the dough into the refrigerator to use at any time in the next two weeks. I’ll admit that I was skeptical of how bread would come out without at least a little bit of kneading, but the results so far have been great. In the last week I’ve used a rye recipe to make a loaf of plain rye, a loaf of muesli bread, a loaf of granola bread, and a loaf with cranberries. Being able to pull some dough out of the refrigerator, add in a few extra ingredients, and then throw it in the oven is addictive.

Oh, and using the dough for a pizza crust resulted in the best pizza I’ve ever made at home.

fast meals for writers
This pizza was ridiculously fast and easy.

And finally, my number one resource for fast, gourmet-tasting recipes is Sheet Pan Suppers. This is the cookbook on my shelf that sees the most use. I pull it off the shelf at least once a week, which is a ton for me. Most of the recipes are incredibly quick, and the flavor they pack for the time they take is on a whole other level. Some of my favorites include the Curried Chicken with Califlower, Apricots & Olives; Warm Tuna Nicoise Salad; Soy-Mustard Salmon & Broccoli; Cilantro-Lime Steamed Halibut & Spicy Coconut Rice; Fancy Tuna Melts; Thick-Cut Pork Chops With Warm Apple-Cabbage Slaw; Pepperoni French Bread Pizza; Hearty Ratatouille with Goat Cheese; and Smoked Cheddar & Apple Grilled Cheese.

Yes, I love this book. It introduces some really great techniques that make for delicious results. Seriously, you can’t beat making six grilled-cheese sandwiches at a time in the oven.

When I’m busy and hungry, then these are the recipes that I turn to. They all satisfy my desire for flavorful food, fit my family’s tastes as well, and come together fast. They are basically the perfect NaNoWriMo recipes for my fellow foodies. To say the least, I’ve tested all of them extensively, and they’ve never let me down. So, if you’re looking for some satisfying meals during your next writing sprint, then I recommend you try some of these.

Plus, I’m always on the lookout for more recipes. Do you have a list of favorite meals for busy evenings? If so, I’d love to hear about them!

 

 

 

The Writing Habit Returns

The Writing Habit Returns

So, I might have mentioned how important it is to write every day about twenty times per post. That’s because I absolutely know from experience that consistency is the only real way to progress in your writing. When I’m writing regularly, I get more done, and my work is better. There is not just comfort in a scheduled window, in knowing that during a certain block of time I will be able to sit with a pen in my hand, but it also helps my brain know when to kick into creative mode.

As a bonus, I tend to be a much happier person when I write regularly. There is just something about writing a really engaging story that makes me feel like a real human being.

The problem is, I haven’t had a good, consistent writing habit recently. Not even close. I’ve been shoving writing into random places in my day, here and there, and that means that sometimes I get it done, and sometimes I get into bed without having scratched down a single word. Basically, at the rate I’m going I’ll finish the first draft of my next novel in, oh, about two years.

That is no way for a writer to behave.

I’ve had a lot of very good reasons (and a few not-so-great reasons, I’m looking at you Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) for why my writing habit has fallen to the side. I learned a few years ago that I’m the kind of person who simply cannot go without decent sleep. With Little Dude and Little Miss going through one cold after another all winter, I stopped waking up early to make up for all the times I got up at night to wipe drippy noses and administer Baby Tylenol. Sleep, and by extension my mental sanity, take precedence over the early morning writing. I know my limits, and that’s a good thing.

And then of course there has been the new job that I may or may not start at any moment, and which I spent several weeks preparing for. Getting together a wardrobe for a job in a real office, that I actually have to drive to, required a shocking amount of my brain power.

But my itch to write has been growing all this time, and now seems like a good opportunity to get back on track with my writing habit. A real, scheduled, planned into my day, happens no matter what kind of habit.

Bright Ink Writes
Yes, I need this hour of time, where it is just me and my notebook.

As long as no one gets any more colds, of course.

I started this morning by getting up at 6:30. Little Dude woke up about five minutes later, so it turns out that’s not quite early enough. I’m thinking, and I quake to write this, that my alarm will have to be set for 5:30. An hour is actually a lot of time, especially if I can get better at writing in the evenings, too.

But oh, 5:30 is obscenely early.

I also added a little habit tracker back into my monthly bullet-journal setup. I’ve found that sort of thing both encouraging and helpful for establishing a daily habit. I just love shading in a box on the days I accomplish my goals. I feel like Hermione Granger would appreciate this about me, although she and I would probably spend way too much time trying to outsmart one another to really get along well. Maybe just swapping planning methods would have to suffice.

The biggest hurdle in establishing a habit like this, though, is building up the mental fortitude. I am not a morning person – not at all, not even a little bit. Having kids has forced me to get out of bed at times I’d much rather be sleeping, and to get up before they bounce awake, ready to spread chaos everywhere they go, is even more of a challenge. I love nothing more than staying buried under my covers as long as possible. So it’s going to take some serious will-power to drive myself out of bed in the mornings.

It helps that I know how important a daily writing session is, and getting the work done first thing in the morning is such a satisfying thing. I’m counting on that to keep me going.

Because really, who can write any kind of book while their toddler is on their lap, driving a little plastic red motorcycle over their notebook? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tried that, of course, but it’s definitely not the right condition for amazing work. Especially when the writing is totally illegible when it’s time to revise.

This is perhaps the trickiest thing about juggling a writing habit and parenting: the constant change. I’m sure this is at least partly my fault, because I’m pretty terrible at creating a daily schedule for the family. It’s difficult to plan for writing when one morning I take the kids out on a walk, and the next we read books and do crafts. When some days Little Dude takes his nap at 11:30 and the next he doesn’t sleep until 1:30, if he ever takes his nap at all.

We do have mealtimes very regularly. I do not miss breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, or supper. Not ever.

But there is a problem of not always quite knowing where writing time gets in there. Last autumn, I fit in a couple of hours every day during nap time, no problem. But as Little Dude’s naps get more unpredictable, so does my word count.

Rather than fight to lock everyone into a specific schedule, I’m more inclined to stay flexible and work out a new method. So, trying for an hour of writing time in the morning is going to be my first salvo in the battle to reclaim a higher word count. I’m reminding myself that even though it will mean sacrificing some sleep, it will also mean that I can get a lot of words done before anyone in the house even wakes up. To a writer who is also the parent of small children, distraction-free writing is a miraculous thing.

I can already imagine the satisfaction of getting Little Dude out of bed, and making breakfast knowing that I already have three or four pages done. Of watching whole chapters pile up around me at a steady rate, rather than in little spurts. It will so be worth getting out of bed that early.

Although you might need to remind me of that at 5:30 am a week from now.

Here is the thing that gives me confidence going into developing this new schedule: I’ve done it before. I have found ways to fit in my writing, even when everything around me is chaos. Even though things have changed recently (again) I know that I can find a way, and I can make it stick. And when things change again about a week from now, then I will figure that out, too. It’s one of the great challenges of being a writer, finding that secret, personal time when the words can get on the page.

If it means getting up super early, then so be it. I’ll make some extra coffee, and it will keep me company in that quiet morning hour.

So, when do you write? And what have you done to establish a writing habit in your life? I’d love to hear all your tips for making it happen. In the meantime, I’ll keep you updated on how I’m doing at getting up early.

As always, thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is an author who I’ve had on my to-read list for a long time, and I finally tackled The Handmaid’s Tale last month. I’m so glad that I did, because her writing is beautiful, but I also can see what took me so long, because it’s equally gut-wrenching. I’m glad I waited until a time when Little Dude was older and I wasn’t so sleep-deprived. That said, the concepts in this novel could be particularly poignant and horrifying right now, depending on your view of current politics. I’m reading and watching things from a really different perspective right now, so the book has a lot more impact than if I’d read it in college, thoroughly convinced that nothing like this could ever really happen.

Honestly, most of what I’ve read recently has felt really heavy. Except perhaps Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so if you’re looking for some fun escapism, that might be your best bet.

If you’re looking for a worst-case-scenario to smack you in the face with disarmingly beautiful sentences, then The Handmaid’s Tale is a great option.

Truly, though, this book is one of the most well-crafted novels that I’ve read in a long time, and if you’re interested in studying up on really great sentences and structure, then you should read it. This is one of those cases where watching the TV adaptation just won’t be enough.

 

The Sentences

Sentences are the building blocks of novels – the next step up from words, anyway – and yet sometimes we ignore their importance. Especially when writing a first draft, it is more important that sentences march forward than appear beautiful. And some types of writing even call on the sentences to vanish into the background, to be more functional than lovely. There are times when writing should not call attention to itself.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, sentences are like songs. The way the narrator describes even the smallest things are unusual and lovely, and this builds a world that is very real, full of strangeness, beauty, and horror. The images, even those of death, have a lovely twist to them. Because of the care with which each sentence is crafted, we see very clearly who the narrator is. She doesn’t have to tell us a lot about herself, because we can see the way she thinks.

There is a grim humor in lines like, “It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.” Shortly followed by, “The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.”

Every sentence in this novel works, and works hard. Building character, building the world, building a feeling, building the story. And building the beauty of all these things. The narrator sees humor in the world in which she lives, and this rises up from the way she uses sentences to tell her story.

I think one of the most important things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that even through the loveliness of the sentences, meaning is still clear. It’s very easy for a beautiful image to lack meaning, to muddle intent, but not here. The craft in the lines enhances the meaning and sharpens the intent. Nothing is lost for the beauty.

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

Through lines like these – thoughts that flash through the narrator’s mind – we are drawn into her world, and what is important to her becomes important to the reader.

It should be noted that some of the sentences in this book would be discouraged by some of the rules of writing style. The author breaks rules, but I believe that they are broken intentionally. Certainly, the way they are broken is effective.

The sentence, “My young mother, younger than I remember her, as young as she must have been once before I was born,” contains several repetitions of the same thought, with very subtle variations. Some would advise the author to carve this down to just one thought, just one image, on the precept that to have three makes the thought less effective. But in this case, the repetition of the thought with slight variations actually gives the thought deeper impact. The first image, “my young mother” is simple, basic, could be said by anybody. The narrator goes farther, “younger than I remember her,” connecting herself with the image. And then, finally, comes, “as young as she must have been once before I was born,” which is speculative, an imagining, connecting to her mother in a way that isn’t entirely possible. The narrator seems to slip into a time when she didn’t exist, and carries with her an understanding that she can’t fully comprehend what kind of person her mother was before having a child.

These chains of thoughts and the way they are expressed, though considered “wrong”, actually work very well in the context of a novel where all of the narrator’s old life is forbidden. She begins with a thought that is simple, could apply to anyone, a thought that is safe. And then she continues to a thought that connects to her past life, the life that’s gone now, a life she can’t even talk about with anyone around her. And then she ends with a step sideways, to a place she’s never been, a place where she could never possibly have gone.

 

Structure

The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale at first feels loose and disjointed. It bounces through several different time periods, the narrator’s life before everything changed, her time at the training center, and her life as Offred. Sometimes there are brief breaks in the middle of a narration, a little gap of white space in spite of the fact that the time being described hasn’t changed.

But underlying these shifts, the seemingly random bouncing, is a pattern. In the contents, the novel begins with the section “Night” then moves to “Shopping” then to “Night” again. The narrator exists in this world of constant swing between stasis and action, and all the while her old life intrudes on the present, sometimes when she seeks it, sometimes without warning.

Late in the novel, the narrator addresses the disjointed structure, the way several different times have been filled in, side by side. “I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force.”

This back-and-forth in the narration is not only tantalizing to the reader, who is always searching for clues about what happened before the narrator’s current circumstances, it also makes sense. Because the narrator’s life has been ripped apart, without ever being put back together. The present is unreal, and makes little sense. The past intrudes, and in the context of the present, it too seems unreal. Her time at the training center connects the two, and though it should be the most nonsensical time, it is in fact the most stable. Here, at least, the world the narrator is in acknowledges the past, and how bizarre it appears alongside the present.

Later, people move together through a present that they all know is strange, and yet they can never acknowledge that. And so every image is a little disjointed and broken. Through this, the reader can see how desperately the narrator is trying to hold herself together, when everything she once was has been blasted apart.

 

 

Character

This is a story rich with people who are complicated, diverse, and honest. Everyone the narrator encounters has wants, interior thoughts that the narrator can only guess at, but which are hinted at through her descriptions. Even the people she dislikes aren’t reduced to villainous caricatures. She has moments of sympathy, even for those who try to hurt her.

The narrator lays out even her worst weaknesses for the reader, and we can see her not as a flat hero, fighting to right the evil around her, but rather as a person, encased in difficult circumstances, trying to survive.

This book works because it lacks simplicity, because the people in it do not act like characters. They act with the broad spectrum of real people in the face of a radical situation. Some parts of them adapt to what has happened, and some do not. They risk their lives for what seem like meaningless indulgences, and yet live alongside atrocities that seem unthinkable.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be right for every story. Some tales of epic heroism require that the characters become archetypes, but even those tales benefit from a dash of complexity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, however, this complexity is everything. This story requires real people, because the reader needs to sink into the world, and feel that it is a true account. Without the horror of possibility, without that reality, the book would have much less meaning.

 

Application

Reading a really well-crafted novel like The Handmaid’s Tale can be equal parts enjoyment and discouragement. I know that I read something like this, and then look to my own writing knowing that what I do isn’t nearly as good. My sentences aren’t nearly as clean, my images don’t have that kind of impact. I know my characters aren’t that complicated or detailed.

But this is exactly why it’s good to read writers who are further advanced in their skills. There is no way to learn that kind of skill, no way to even envision it, without reading it first. As usual, the first step in applying these techniques to your own writing is to read in the first place. Read as much as possible (I know, it’s not always much, but every bit counts; at least that’s what I tell myself) from as many different areas as possible. Read the things that make you laugh, read the things that make you stop and think. Read in the genre where you write, and outside it, too.

I find reading a book twice, or more, can be the best way of identifying all the components that make the piece work. Sometimes techniques aren’t apparent until you’ve fully absorbed the plot.

Then, when you read something that feels out of the reach of your own skill, remind yourself that the author probably worked long and hard to achieve what you’ve read. Books that are well-crafted might be easy to read, but they are not easy to make. When a novel is beautifully done, down to the level of the sentence, remember the hours of reading and writing that came before the writer even sat down to craft those sentences. Remember the messiness of the first draft, and all the challenge of turning that mess into something beautiful. It’s a process that every single book goes through, even if it’s not apparent from reading.

Next, practice your own writing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling discouraged about what I’ve written, I like to remind myself that no word is wasted. And that’s true. Every sentence that you write is practice, even if it will never be read by anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the sentences you scribble right now hit the cutting-room floor later, it doesn’t matter if that happens to entire chapters. Everything you write builds your skill, and advances you forward. Or at the very least, keeps you in practice.

It should be noted that Margaret Atwood does not only write novels. She’s also the author of many works of poetry, and the kind of writing and thinking required for poetry shows in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even if your poetry turns out to be complete crap, the economy of language and the type of thinking that poetry demands will force you to learn how to craft good sentences.

I imagine that Margaret Atwood’s poetry is probably not complete crap, however.

As to writing richly-fleshed characters, this requires deep observation of the world, and a really challenging level of honesty about oneself. In order to create characters who feel and behave real, a writer has to be able to look at the people around him or her and see them as rich and real. This is not always easy. It can be very tempting to villainize those who make life more difficult for us. It is, in fact, a built-in part of human nature to look at those who are remarkably different from us and see them as ‘other’. But this is one of the most essential parts of character-building, to set that aside, and acknowledge that maybe those others who annoy us aren’t all bad, and that often our own actions can create pain for others.

This is another thing that takes time and awareness, and I’ll admit that I’m not a master of it. I am, however, constantly working at it. Reading things like The Handmaid’s Tale certainly helps advance my understanding.

As always, I’ll conclude by encouraging you to keep reading and keep writing, and do both thoughtfully. Try not to get bogged down in an attempt to make every single sentence lovely, of course. You could spend your whole life staring at a blank piece of paper if you do. Keep getting sentences down, one after the other, and then revise and edit them, always getting closer to the ideal result. Every ounce of practice that you can carve out of your day is time well spent.

 

 

Armor for Queries

Armor for Queries

When I wrote my post on mistakes I made the first time I sent queries, which you can find here, I talked a lot about the technical things I got wrong, and touched very briefly on how my thinking made the whole process harder. In this post, I’d like to go a lot more into how I wished I’d mentally prepared for the query process. This isn’t something I’ve seen a lot of people talk about, and I know for sure it’s something that would have helped me on my journey. So, if you’re a writer who plans on querying agents one day, or you are a writer who still HATES the query process, then this post is for you.

 

The Advice

“You’re going to get a lot of rejections, so get used to it.”

“This is just part of the process, so try to relax and enjoy it.”

“Agents get a ton of queries every day – it’s not personal when you get a rejection letter.”

Before I sent my first query letter, I’d seen all these phrases floating around in one form or another. I read them, and nodded sagely. Rejection letters happen to every writer, they’re part of the process, got it. I had been in writing classes, I’d dished out and taken critiques on my work, I knew how to roll with the punches, so rejection letters would be no problem.

But also, in the back of my mind, I didn’t quite believe that rejection letters would happen to me. Not many of them, anyway. Because I also saw the hints of writers receiving multiple offers of representation from agents, and then they had to pick. So that meant that some writers were rolling in a pile of “Yes, please, let us represent your book!” I imagined that I might be one of them.

I also got the sense from all of the “Put on your armor when you query” advice that it was a bit tired. I saw the same phrases over and over again, referring to rejection letters like they were some sort of big, awful thing. But they felt so cliche and tired after a while that I just started to brush the advice off. It didn’t mean much, and so I figured that a rejection must not be that bad, otherwise people would have more to say about it.

I suspect that a lot of writers and agents aren’t very descriptive when it comes to rejection letters, because they don’t like talking about how really gut-wrenching rejection letters can be to someone who isn’t ready for them. After all, hundreds of writers receive them every day. It’s much nicer to focus in on the success stories, on the books hitting the shelves right now, than on the thousands of hopefuls clutching their unpublished manuscripts, sending out e-mail after e-mail, only to get back no after no.

If that sounds grim, that’s because the process can be really brutal. But with the right mind-set, it becomes much easier to take on.

 

The Armor

Sometimes we hear instructions to don our armor so frequently that we forget what this actually means. Putting on armor is not like putting on a sweater. It’s not a thing you slide up over your arms then throw over the arm of the couch when you get too warm. Armor is a massive pain to put on. It has to be buckled and strapped into place, which takes hours. And once it’s on there, you sure aren’t taking it off unless you really must.

The mental armor needed for the query process is like this. It takes work to make it, and ideally it should be part of your daily life. If you put some effort into it and keep refining it over time, then you’ll be so glad that you can go into the query process confident that it won’t reduce you to a pathetic puddle.

I have been a pathetic puddle, trust me, you want to avoid this if you can.

To avoid that, I’ve built up a system of many components. You may find that some of these strategies are great for you, or you may find you have to tweak them, or try something else, but these are good places to start.

 

Prepare

I talked about this in more detail in my post on query mistakes I made, but this really is an important component of getting ready for querying. Don’t allow yourself to have little doubts about the condition of your manuscript wriggling in the back of your mind when you get rejection letters. Make sure you’ve revised several times, and edited. Get some beta readers, and listen to what they say. Learn to write a good query letter. Basically, make your manuscript shiny, then wrap it up with a bow.

That way, when you get a rejection letter, you will know for sure that it’s not because your manuscript is in rough shape. You will really know that your work just wasn’t right for the agent you queried.

 

Control Your E-mail

There are a lot of things in the query process that you can’t control. You can write a masterpiece, send it out to a hundred agents, and still get nothing but rejections if none of those agents think there’s a market for that book.

Agents are also human beings with moods, and who knows how they might be feeling when they get your query? You know how you have those days when your favorite movie just doesn’t sound good, and you’d rather watch re-runs of Modern Family for six hours straight? Agents are people, too, and the kind of day they’re having can affect what they say yes and no to.

Don’t let this lack of control totally freak you out, though. I know it’s tough – I write books because I like to have a say over every little detail, and letting go of that need to make things go the way I envision is hard. That perfectionism is a benefit when I’m translating my vision to words on a page. But it doesn’t serve me well when I’m in the query process.

So, if the chaos of the query process gets to you, shift your focus to something you can control. AKA: stop refreshing your e-mail twenty times a day.

One of the worst reactions I’ve ever had to a rejection letter happened early on in my first round of queries. I opened up my e-mail right as I sat down to have dinner at a restaurant one night. For some reason I was the only person at the table, I was waiting on everyone else to arrive, I opened my email on my phone, and there they were. Two rejections. Both form letters.

Then I had to sit and chat through dinner while those rejection letters gnawed at me.

Don’t do this to yourself. Set aside a time when you check your emails every day, when you can be ready for them. When you have time to react and respond to them, whether the news in them is good or bad. You can’t control if and when those rejection letters come, but you can control when you see them.

Use that locus of control to your advantage, and when those rejections come you will be much better equipped to deal with them.

 

Set Aside Your Ego

I’ve heard a lot of agents say this, and it bears repeating, as well as some expanding. Rejection letters aren’t personal. They do not reflect on your writing ability. They do not signal the end of your writing career.

This is not about you.

Really let that sink in. Rejection letters are not about you. They aren’t about your skills, they aren’t about your value as a human being.

When you send out a query, you are presenting agents with your work. One piece of your work. And agents aren’t offering to represent projects they don’t believe in. Agents only say yes if they are willing to stick with your manuscript for the long haul.

Have you ever read a book, and you knew it was a good book, but it just wasn’t your favorite? You enjoyed the time you spent reading it, and you put it down satisfied, but you didn’t find yourself gushing to your friends about how awesome it was? I know that describes the majority of the books I’ve read. They were good, I liked them, but I’m not going to go back and re-read them five times.

Then there are the books that I treasure, that I read over and over. I practically throw them at my friends and beg other people to read them.

You want your agent to feel that kind of enthusiasm about your book. You want them to feel like your book should be in the hands of everybody in the world, because they love it that much. And not every agent is going to feel that way about your work. In fact, most of them probably won’t. So, when agents say no to your project, it’s because your manuscript really, truly, is not right for them. Take that as a sign they respect what you do – especially if they take the time to write a personal response instead of a form letter.

Then keep searching. The right people for your book are out there. You will find them, if you keep looking, and if you remember that the people who say no didn’t do it because they dislike you.

They did it because they didn’t love your project enough to spend hours and hours of their time telling publishing companies how great it is. And that’s a good thing. You want your work in the hands of someone who loves it as much as you do.

 

Start A New Project

You wrote your manuscript, you revised it, you edited it. Then you researched agents and wrote a stunning query letter. So, you send out query letters, and then you relax. It’s about time, right?

Five days later, you’re refreshing your email twenty times a day, and spending the rest of your time chewing your nails, wondering which agents are reading your query, what they think of it, and when they’ll respond.

The best possible distraction? Working on a new project. It’s impossible to sit in front of your laptop, drumming your fingers or clicking the refresh button if you’re creating an outline or some character sketches. While you’re querying is a great time to start on your next manuscript. That way, if you get a rejection letter, it’s really easy to point out that your entire writing career doesn’t hinge on that one project. You have more material where that came from.

The more fun and exciting this project, the better. Maybe work on a genre you’ve never tried before. Write some poetry or a short story. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that lifts your spirits and reminds you why you wanted to become a writer in the first place.

 

Treasure Direct Responses

The first time I queried I took every rejection letter as a blow. It didn’t matter if it was a form rejection, if it was personally written, if it was just no response at all by a certain date. Every single one hurt.

With time, however, I’ve learned the value of those rejection letters written just for me. Even if it’s just a couple of lines, I know that the agent liked my work enough to spend valuable time making a message. For most agents, it’s a sign of respect, a way of acknowledging the writers who have stood out from the crowd.

If the direct response contains specific reference to something you’ve done well, then that is a real treasure. Take those compliments to heart – most of the time they’re not just nonsense sent to make you feel better. If an agent who sees hundreds of queries a month says that what you’ve written is creative, then there’s probably something to that.

If you aren’t getting any direct responses at all, and you’ve received more than a handful of rejections, then that might be a sign you need to look at your query letter or your manuscript, and ask yourself if you’ve expressed the core, driving forces of your book clearly. Sending queries is a learning process, and you definitely have to be willing to revise as you go if you aren’t getting much response.

And if you do get even a small tidbit of praise from a very busy agent, remember how valuable that is. Don’t class it with the form rejections and the no-responses. Let it encourage you to keep going, because you’re on the right track.

 

Celebrate the Victories

It’s really easy, when I’ve worked on something for a long time and it’s become vitally important to me, to see only what I’ve done wrong, and forget all the things I’ve done right. But when I forget to remind myself of how far I’ve come, I turn every minor roadblock into an insurmountable mountain. And this mind-set can make querying especially difficult.

Victories.jpg

Every rejection letter is like a drum-beat: wrong, wrong, wrong.

So, before I even get those rejection letters, I try to remind myself of the obstacles I’ve already overcome. I keep in mind the things I’ve learned along the way. And I make lists of all I’ve done right. From the perspective of all my victories, the little setbacks don’t seem so enormous.

For me, I don’t just keep a mental tally, either. As part of my schedule in my bullet journal, I spend some time every week making a list of my successes from the last seven days. And when I hit a really big milestone, I take time to savor it. When I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I don’t fret over how long I spent writing it, I congratulate myself on a job well done. When I get a request for a full manuscript from an agent, I cheer and tell everyone I know. It might ultimately lead to a no, but even that is a victory.

If you want to survive the rejections with your mental sanity intact, don’t forget to throw yourself a little party when you achieve something good.

 

Find Your Community

Without Sam, Frodo never would have made it to Mount Doom. Without Hermione and Ron, Harry Potter never would have survived long enough to defeat Voldemort. And Batman would have fallen to The Joker quite a few times if not for Robin. Every journey is easier when you have comrades by your side and at your back.

You might need writer friends who can help you revise or show you the ropes of querying. You might need non-writer friends who will cheer you on through pure faith in how awesome you are. You might need people who will go with you every step of the way, and offer perspective when things look bleak. You might need family who don’t understand what you’ve written at all, but love you, anyway.

I like having all of those things. The bigger your community, the more people you’ll have to cheer you on when the rejection letters pile up.

So, reach out and connect with the people around you, whether on the Internet or in real life. You’ll find your journey much smoother when you have a fellowship to back you up.

 

These are the components of the armor I wear when I send out queries. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what works for me, but all the time I’ve spent working on it has been well worth it. Now, I can receive a rejection letter with joy, because it contains some small compliment that shows me how much my work is valued by the agent who wrote it. This is a radical change from where I started.

As you query, or even as you seek critiques for your work, remember to keep working on a system that helps you weather the difficult moments. It’s as much a part of the process as learning how to finish your first manuscript, and once you’ve constructed your own armor, you’ll find that putting your work out in the world becomes easier.

As always, thank you for reading Bright Ink, and happy writing!