Owning It

A large part of succeeding as a writer boils down to your willingness to put in the time. Can you accept sitting at a desk, dreaming up worlds, typing (or scribbling) the words, and getting it done? The answer to these questions has always been a resounding yes for me, but I tend to fail when it comes to putting in the face time.

I did just that this weekend. I put in the face time and met dozens of wonderful writers and agents and editors at the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC. It was fabulous. I participated in PitchSlam, in which authors are given one hour to pitch as many agents as they can in three-minute segments. (Truly, it’s any introvert’s nightmare.)

But you know what? While I was nervous going into my first pitch, it melted away quickly. Why? Because I discovered something as I delved into conversation with these agents. I found myself admitting something surprising. Out loud.

I love my book. I love the characters. I love the plot. I love the interactions and the quirks and the personalities. It was a fun book to write and I had fun writing it! And when you enjoy your story, I think it shows. You start to enjoy talking about it and telling people why it’s something they’ll want to read…which makes it a lot easier to pitch.

Proof? I pitched 6 agents and all 6 made requests for partial manuscripts (requested lengths varied). This may or may not result in progress moving forward, but that’s not the point. The point? When you love your work, it shows. 

Writers. Friends. I have one piece of advice for you. LOVE YOUR WORK. It’s yours. You wrote it because you loved it. 

Now own it.

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So many fabulous writers. Dinner on a Friday night.

The Value of One Year

Can you measure the worth of a year? How do you set the price? In dollars? In euros? In pesos? Can you put a price on it at all?

When you get a cancer diagnosis, you find out just how much your time with loved ones is really worth, and just how much more of that time you want. One year ago, we found out.

One year ago, my husband was diagnosed with a rare type of pancreatic cancer. One year ago, the doctors saved his life.

And mine.

If you want to know the value of a year, ask anyone who has faced this kind of diagnosis or worse. We were lucky. His was only a stage 1B. Prognosis is good. Our future is optimistic.

But that doesn’t stop me from asking ‘What if?’ a hundred-thousand times a day. What if things had been different?

So if you want to know what a year is truly worth, spend an afternoon with a cancer survivor and ask them to share their experience. And never take for granted another year, another day, another minute, again.

June 5, 2017 changed our lives forever. I have felt a level of gratitude every day of this past year greater than I could ever have imagined. If you want to know the value of one year, simply ask yourself, “What if?”

Storms full page program ad for Dance Centers
The ad we placed in this year’s dance program.

Where Dreams and Reality Collide

There’s a job opening in a microbiology laboratory where I used to work. I’ve said often to friends and family how much I missed working in the micro lab, how much fun the testing could be, how interesting the job. And yet…

I have no less than four headhunters who have emailed me about this position in the past 48 hours. It’s a contract position with the potential for permanent work. But do I want permanent work? Do I want to commit my hours to working for dollars instead of writing for none? Am I ready to give up on a dream of writing novels full-time to have the security and extra money a job outside the home would bring?

Before you comment, let me stop you. 1. I’ve heard all these arguments before, and 2. I’ve been having the same conversation with myself for days now. It’s not giving up on a dream to accept the reality of supporting your family and easing the financial burden by helping to bear the load. But there’s a lot to consider because taking a full time job outside of the house is more than just 40 hours a week. It’s also 7-10 hours of commute time. 

Beyond that, it’s giving up all the luxuries I currently have. No, not the financial luxuries. I’m talking about the school field trips I chaperone, the classrooms I assist in for fun activities, the holiday parties I can help plan for my kids. These are the things I can never get back, the things time won’t wait on. By going back to work full time, I’d be putting my kids and family second again – at least as far as time constraints go. (Certainly not in regards to feelings!)

So, while there’s a part of me that longs for the financial freedom a second household income would bring, and the knowledge that I’m helping my husband to bear the financial load a bit more, I think I’ll pass on the microbiology lab for now. The lab will be there in five years and in ten. My 8 and 12-year-olds will not. Time has a habit of stealing our youth and I intend to build as many memories with my kids as I can while they’re still young.

And writing? I will always have writing. Being home just allows me to pursue it more passionately.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have some faces to paint at the 6th grade school carnival in a half hour and rocks to paint in a 2nd grade classroom later today. Pharmaceutical microbiology and financial freedom can wait.

 

A Writer in Waiting

My sink is full of dirty dishes, my dishwasher full of clean. The laundry needs to be moved to the dryer and the carpets could certainly use a vacuum. But I am a writer waiting on betas. Which means I must refresh my email exactly 12,483 times a day to see if anyone has left me feedback.

What?

Yes, I know I have a problem. And yes, going on submission is far worse. I understand.

But none of this stops me from wandering the house listlessly, contemplating my own existence.

I’ve taken up learning French. Does it help?

Non.

 

The Never Expected and Always Unthinkable

If you’ve been following me for a while, odds are good that you know the health crisis we’ve been through over the last year as my husband faced a scary pancreatic cancer diagnosis last spring. The kind of diagnosis you’re not supposed to get at 43.

It was awful. It was traumatic. And until this week, I’d kind of sort of managed to tuck it away in the deep recesses of my mind. Because let’s face it—you can’t think about this kind of thing every day or you’ll actually drive yourself out of your head with worry, the kind of worry that comes with anxious, nervous energy that keeps you up into the wee hours of the morning every night with no one but your miserable self to keep you company.

And then this week someone I know on Twitter (I can’t even call her a ‘friend’—we’ve never had a single personal conversation!), a Pitchwars mentor & writer whose debut book just came out this month, a woman who is living her dream—the same dream I have—just got word that her husband had been hit by a car and was in the ICU at the hospital. I don’t know the details. I know only what she has shared on Twitter.

But her story has hit me so hard this week. So hard. Because it seems like even when things are really good, they can still be really bad. Clarissa recently tweeted about how wonderful the doctors and nurses are, about how they’re making sure that she’s taking care of herself, too. And it brought the memories flooding back.

The day I couldn’t eat because I woke up with such severe anxiety three days after my husband’s surgery that my stomach had cramped into one big knot. The nurse on shift that day didn’t say anything right away, but by 3 p.m., she gave me a knowing expression with worried eyes that I swear could see right into my soul and she asked me, “Have you eaten anything today?” I hadn’t. I couldn’t. So when I finally managed to eat a banana at 7 p.m., I made sure to let her know. Nurses are amazing. They are incredible human beings who give so much more than I ever knew was humanly possible to give to perfect strangers.

And in one tweet, Clarissa sent me right back to those horrible moments after the big surgery, the ones I pushed aside for the last nine months. My heart goes out to Clarissa and her family. I know what she’s going through. I know the fear and the worry and the feeling that nothing will ever be the same—that your entire future is nothing more than one big question mark.

I hope that you’ll join me in supporting Clarissa Goenawan and her husband in the weeks and months of trials they’ll have ahead of them. The medical bills can add up so quickly that it takes your breath away when you stop to think about it. We spent over $10,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses last year. Without insurance, it would have been well over $300,000. Life can turn on a dime and moments like these are sharp reminders to hold our loved ones tight and appreciate all we have been given.

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 8.19.19 PMMany prayers for Clarissa and Choo and for a quick and complete recovery and a return to normal life.

And if you want to support a debut author in another most appreciated way, pick up a copy of her book, Rainbirds, released March 6th of this year.

 

The Labor of Love

I won’t lie. When I first began writing with the intention of finishing and someday publishing a novel (or fifteen), I didn’t have the first clue as to what kinds of water I was dipping my toes into. (Hint: Deep, dark, swift moving, filled with odd creatures who will take a bite out of you, and possibly even waters inhabited at times by the devil himself. I’m not making this up.) And when I speak with my non-writer friends now, it’s clear that they, too, have zero understanding of the publishing process.

It’s kind of funny, really, when non-writers ask me, “Oh, so you wrote a book? When can I read it? When will it be published? I’d love to quit my job and just write a book.” Most of them don’t realize what they’ve just done. They can’t yet grasp that they’ve engaged a madwoman on her most passionate topic. It’s like inviting a Jehovah’s Witness into your house to discuss God. Because I don’t fool around when I start talking about the writing—editing—submission—rejection—revision process.

And so the lesson begins.

Every book starts with an idea. Maybe it’s something that popped up as you’re drifting off to sleep or shampooing your hair in the shower. Or, maybe it was an idea you’ve had since childhood, one you’ve been contemplating writing about for years. Regardless of how an idea reveals itself, for me, it takes time to marinate in my brain before I can begin to write it down.

Award-winning fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson says that there are two kinds of writers—outliners and discovery writers. I most certainly belong to the former camp. Though I’m not the kind of writer who considers an outline the “Holy Grail” of writing, there are some writers who do. Me? I’m more of a write-a-loose-outline-chapter-by-chapter, highlight-the-major-events-that-need-to-take-place, then-bail-on-the-outline-about-a-quarter-of-the-way-through-when-another-great-plot-line-occurs-to-me kind of writer. Either way, the point is, an outline is a tool that helps to keep the story moving forward. Never mind the fact that I’ll write two more outlines before I get anywhere.

After the outline, depending on the topic of the book, there’s a lot of research to be done. Some of that can be beforehand, some of it is done as I go, and the rest of it falls into the category of [BLAH BLAH – FILL IN MORE HERE LATER – DETAILS!].  More professional writers will use [TK], meaning ‘to come,” but I’m just not that distinguished. I prefer sticking with the BLAH BLAH technique.

And don’t forget the mental block, also known as the dreaded writer’s block. That’s fun and always exceptionally unexpected. And once I step away from the keyboard, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be back any time soon… So for me, it’s critical to ignore writer’s block and just keep writing even if I scrap 90% of what I end up adding to the document. The odds are as long as I keep on writing, I’ll eventually write myself out of the block, but if I stop…well, I’m likely to easily lose a few months.

So, supposing all of this produces a finished novel, there’s also the revision process. That means going back, revising, refining, and hacking away until your raw treasure is a highly polished gem that’s acceptable to submit to an agent. But before you even submit to an agent, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got something worth submitting, and that requires beta readers – friends and family, and maybe even an online stranger or two, who will read your work and give you solid, honest feedback (no matter how much it hurts).

And, oh…an agent.

Somewhere around the time of your 5th draft or so (okay, maybe your 3rd if you’re really good), you can begin to query an agent. Since I began following dozens of agents on Twitter, I’ve started to feel really good about my query letter… If you’re unfamiliar with what a query is, there are hundreds of websites that show you how to effectively query an agent.

And there’s great advice from agents on how not to query an agent, too.  Like this beauty:

Or this one.

(Really, following Dr. Stender on Twitter has become kind of a recent hobby for me… But don’t give him all your attention. There are lots of other agents with great advice, too! Eric Smith is another good one.)

The best part (ahem…cough, cough…) about querying is compiling a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. I make a ridiculously overcomplicated spreadsheet that includes all sorts of info I don’t need, and I color code as I query. Yellow for queries waiting on a reply (including the date and the type of materials submitted), red for queries that have been rejected, and green for queries in which a full or partial manuscript has been requested, and let me just be honest and tell you that there’s a lot of red on my screen. When I open that file these days, it looks as though I’ve just murdered a small mammal. The problem with my green lines, of course, is that so far they haven’t stayed green, which means that I’ve gotten rejections even after a full manuscript read. But I’ve always gotten good feedback and I revise, revise, revise until I’m ready to submit again.

The most difficult part by far is the willingness to put yourself out there, get rejected again and again, and still remain confident in your ability. The key is to remember that agents are highly subjective and just because they turned down your work doesn’t mean they think it sucks. It just means they aren’t looking to represent that particular piece at that point in time. (Maybe they’re already representing a similar work, perhaps the story was too close to something else they know of, or maybe they just signed another author with a story that meets what they were looking for.) I like to give the ‘needle in a haystack’ analogy, only the hay is on fire and you just have to hope you find the needle in time. If you want to know just how tough querying is, check out a great guest blog by Shannon Parker about an insider’s perspective on rejection.

So if you nab an agent, and that’s a big if, it’s time to pop the champagne, right?  Well…

Though it might feel a bit like winning an NFL championship, signing with a literary agent is really only the first step in a marathon run. Okay, maybe it’s the first mile marker in a marathon. (The first step was writing the book.) Your agent is probably going to request a revision or two before going on to submit your work to editors at publishing companies. And guess what?

That means now your agent is querying for you. Oh yeah, querying again. So, get ready to be rejected again. And if you get accepted – yay! That means you’re on your way to an actual published book deal…after more edits…and galleys…and edits…

And what then? Promotion, promotion, promotion!

Then.

Take those years of soul-crushing disappointment that you put into your first book, and use them as fuel to start a second, a third, and a fifteenth book. Oh, and be prepared to put in what amounts to years and years of work without getting paid a single dime because that’s how writers (and agents) roll.

So, tell me again how you’d like to “quit your job and just write a book.” The fact is, writing isn’t for the faint of heart and it isn’t glamorous. It’s work. Real, tangible, difficult and often unpaid work, but if you’re lucky and you’re persistent, you might just be able to succeed at making a career of it.

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P.S. Writing is also *really* hard when you’ve got a 40-lb. lap dog.