Breathe (This Makes Me Wanna Listen to Michelle Branch)

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So, it’s been a minute. I know, really, it’s been a lot of them. But I’m forever learning that life doesn’t always go the way you plan. Things most certainly don’t unfold in the dramatic scenes you play in your head, and, unfortunately, there’s a lot of disappointment down the road. Not to be cheesy, but there is beauty in that, too. I guess there’s just a lot of lessons to be learned.

Lately, I haven’t been in the mood for the world to prove me wrong. For the sake of my ego–and my mental health–sometimes you just gotta take things as they come. As I’ve learned many times in the past year, you can’t control everything.

Recently, my life has pulled me away from creating. It’s a weird headspace for me, being so focused on practical things–saving money to move out, trying to figure out where I even want to go, if I can handle moving to another state and leaving behind my family, what I even want to do these days–that I’ve lost that part of me that loves to create.

The further I drift from writing, the further I drift from myself. Me not writing is a reflection of my brain.

All I want is to get back into the fun (and hell) of a first draft. I want the mess, the characters that do whatever they want, the plot holes, and that feeling of being so involved in the story that hours go by without me noticing.

Countless times I’ve started and scrapped something. I even made it fifty pages into a draft before I stepped away because I couldn’t work my way through the plot.

This new idea scares me. It’s intimidating. In size. In emotional heftiness. In all of the world-building it’ll require. In all of the essential character development. In maybe prying open a wound I’ve left festering for too long. Also, in this new idea, my characters are older. It’s even a different genre. So this is way out of my comfort zone, which is exciting yet terrifying.

Ultimately, I think this is about me not getting ahead of myself. I have all sorts of ideas, and I need to remind myself that writing is about the adventure. About the love I have for it. How it has saved me time and time again. That it’s okay to take a break. That I will find my way back to it when I’m ready.

I mean, in May of 2017, I thought I would never write again. And then I opened a random Scrivener document and there was nothing but a single note about a basic plot idea. That sparked the novel I’ve spent the past year working on, a novel that I will always love regardless if it goes anywhere.

So, maybe, I should just breathe.

Let life do its thing.

And see how it all works out in the end.

The Dreaded Query Letter

In the background of today’s writing session is a thunderstorm. There’s nothing quite like thunder, and rain has always been my favorite weather despite its tendency to ruin plans. Perhaps that’s exactly why I like it, because then I have an excuse to stay in bed and read, and as of late, obsessively watch The Great British Baking Show.

Last month, I somehow managed to read six books, which for me, is a lot. I never read that many, because after being a literature major/philosophy minor in undergrad, I read slowly because I tend to write comments in the margins and highlight the crap out of passages/books I love. Yes, I’m one of those readers who loves her books so much she breaks the spine, dogears the pages, writes in ink. I love when I can tell books are loved.

Anyway, my point is that lately, I haven’t been reading much, and that has to do with the topic of today’s post: the dreaded query letter. I have finally achieved a draft that feels right. I have plans to try one more structural tweak before I send off the first few pages to my list of agents, but my beta-readers have been incredibly helpful. Honestly, I just feel really loved, and their comments and insights have been incredibly helpful these past few months getting this manuscript into great shape.

It might be a little risky, given just last week I was talking about not rushing things. But, this will be Draft Six, and though there are probably some things I’ve missed, I’m hoping to work with an editorial agent who is willing help me with this difficult novel.

Thus begins the process of writing a query letter. Two things I’ve noticed since the last time I wrote one: a) I forgot how to do so, and b) writing a query letter for a contemporary versus a fantasy is insanely different. When I was writing the one for my first novel, it came so easy because I knew exactly what was at stake, I knew which books I could comp it with, and I knew the structure was linear and easy to follow.

This time around, not so much. I think it’s because I’m so much more attached to this novel, and that when I let myself run around daydreams of the publishing world, it’s this novel that’s my debut. Which is a scary freaking thing. But I think that’s why the query is so hard to nail. It’s the thing that stands between your writing getting into the hands of an agent.

Honestly, I feel like it’s an antiquated bit of the publishing world, but I do understand its function and necessity. It’s the first (now, often virtual) impression you’re making on someone you may eventually begin to build a professional relationship with. If you can’t summarize your own book, that often means you don’t understand the heart of it just yet. Also, just a bit of advice, almost all agencies have guidelines on querying. Read through and follow them, or risk your query getting deleted without being read.

One of my professors during Thesis Seminar once told us that writers wear a lot of hats. At that point, some were just beginning to write their thesis and others were editing. She pointed that out, that you’re using different parts of your brain for each task. When I’m writing, I try not to think about mistakes. I just write. When I’m editing, I’m thinking about structure, the function of scenes, the necessity of scenes and characters.

So, writing queries also falls into the collection of hats we wear. It’s a frustrating one, to be honest. The kind that itches, the kind that falls down over our eyes whenever we duck our heads, the one that make it hard to hear the outside world. I also feel kind of stuffy when I wear this hat, because I’m trying to be businesslike, but also not lose the heart of my novel.

There are just so many ideas and opinions on the query letter these days, that you have to go in it just knowing that what you absolutely have to have is a great hook. Make the agent want to read more, make them wonder what will happen in the book. Some agents may pay more attention to the query than others, mostly because they’re trying to see if a) you can summarize your book, b) you listen to instruction, and, most importantly, c) you know how to sell your book.

Some of my fellow writers who are querying are relying on their pages to make up for their query letter. I’ve seen manuscripts picked up regardless of how garbage their query actually is, but I personally am too scared to take that risk. I want to show that I can do both, that I can wear all of the hats–not at once, of course, because then I would look ridiculous (Dobby from Harry Potter comes to mind)–even if this is all metaphorical.

Knowing that you’re about to make a first impression on someone is intimidating. Especially when you feel like you’re packing up all of your hard work and dreams into a little package and sending it for judgment. The whole process is subjective, something that was once included in a rejection email I received last time around. It was probably the most helpful piece of advice I had received, because it was a good reminder that even though no one offered to sign me, it didn’t mean I wasn’t talented or didn’t have any chance at getting published. It just meant that that project wasn’t the right one for this particular agent. I guess, really, that’s what you have to remember through this process.

Gosh, I know this post is insanely long, so thanks for reading. I guess I just had way more feelings–i.e. dread–about the query letter than I initially thought. But it is important to have faith in yourself. Writing and publishing really is about the journey, and someday, you’ll look back and be thankful you took your time, you wrote the best manuscript you could. So, to all of you querying, I wish you luck.

The Need for Taking Your Time

Wednesday was supposed to be my deadline to send Draft 2 to my critique partner. It didn’t happen. My work schedule was all over the place, I had to read and critique manuscripts/queries for other writers, and I was exhausted. All excuses. But what I forget when making deadlines for myself is that I tend to make them unattainable. I always rush things, and they end disastrously.

Take, for example, the novel I wrote for my thesis. During boards, when I had to defend this book, my child, and listen to critiques that, in the moment were helpful but looking back are now discouraging, I knew the book needed to be put away. I had been writing it, workshopping it, crying over it at Panera Bread with my writing friends and in my advisor’s office for the entire course of grad school. And when it was all over, I was proud of myself for being one of four students to turn in an entire novel before boards.

My life during that final semester of grad school, was amazing. I mean, I wasn’t working, so that caused me ~insane~ anxiety, but I was living on my own in a cute apartment with my even cuter dog. I was eating pizza and writing all of the time. I had multiple weekly writing dates with people in my program at various indie coffee shops across the city, had made amazing friends when we all traveled to Peru the summer before, whom I went to AWP with in D.C. I was accepted into and attended the MadCap Writing Cross Culturally Workshop in Gatlinburg, TN, where I spent four star-struck days learning from established YA writers like Leigh Bardugo, Julie Murphy, and upcoming debut ones like Nic Stone and Ashley Woodfolk. I got to eat lunch with Nicola Yoon and talk about her writing processes for Everything, Everything and The Sun is Also a Star. And, on top of all of that, Dhonielle Clayton read the beginning of my manuscript and her critique was so unbelievably helpful and kind.

Back in the Burgh, we were doing monthly readings for the program. I found my voice that semester, not just in writing YA, but in finally writing non-fic pieces about past failed relationships, about my broken heart and traumatic moments. I read aloud and felt on fire each and every time. I found my group of my writers, and we danced Friday nights away, and did many shots of tequila before readings.

I’d never had a friend group like this, people who stayed, people who loved me despite my mess of a heart, how easily I cry, how much I feel things. The love and respect was mutual. Iceland was awaiting my arrival in a few short weeks, I was admittedly starting to develop feelings for someone in the program and it was scary and wonderful and terrible all at once, and somehow, I was the happiest I’d ever been in my entire life.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened once I followed the sharp bend in the road. The end was nearing. People were getting ready to move away from Pittsburgh to chase their own dreams, and I wasn’t excited for graduation. I was absolutely terrified. It came and it went, and it was a few months later when I woke up and realized my life had blown apart.

I stopped writing. I read through my thesis novel without really reading it. I had my heart broken, went to amend things, made it a thousand times worse, and broke it myself. I burned bridges, embarrassed people I respected, and cried more that I’ve probably ever cried in my life. (And honestly, that’s saying a lot.) I was depressed, living with my parents, had no job, no prospects of a job. All I had was this “finished” book.

Even though it wasn’t anywhere near ready, I needed so desperately for someone to say that all of this pain was worth it. That my voice was compelling, that in months when I felt like I could never be enough for anyone–as a friend, as a lover, as a student, as an intern, as a writer–this manuscript was exactly what they were looking for. I just wanted to be wanted in return. I wanted someone to stay.

I rushed it. I wrote a query letter, sent it out to a list of agents I had researched, and was not surprised or even crushed by the rejections. But then one of the agents asked for a full, and even though I knew this book was terrible, even though I’d done everything I’d been told not to do, I sent it to her in a haste. It was rushed and I’m embarrassed and still mad at myself for it. Needless to say, I never heard back from that agent.

All of this is to say that you shouldn’t rush things like this. Sure, sometimes, the daydream of being published and having my books on the shelf is so visceral that I can’t wait a moment longer. I get ahead of myself a lot. So this time, I’m taking it slow. I’m going to forgive myself for the missed deadline, and I’m going to keep writing this draft. I think this attempt will be different. Because this is the book straight out of my heart.

Hopefully, one day I’ll get to share it with you all.

This is for Me, But Also for You

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I know there will come a day when I wish I had started this sooner. If only I had been paying closer attention from the very beginning, watching my writing grow and writing about the process of writing a novel. But, in my twenty-four years on this planet, I’ve come to accept that I am habitually late: to work, to hanging out with my friends, to understanding my emotions, to acting on those emotions, to surprise parties, to meetings with people I respect. I’ve also accepted that perspective always changes in hindsight. So, whereas I normally feel guilty about all of the above, I’m letting this one slide.

For those of you who don’t know, and at this point, none of you do, I’m a writer living in the rural outskirts of Pittsburgh. I have a MFA in Creative Writing, and my speciality was children’s literature, along with publishing and travel writing. My heart is in writing for young adults. It’s one of those markets that’s flourishing as it grows, and as of many recent publications, it’s starting to do things that other areas in the lit world haven’t quite caught on to yet. (So, I’ll say it right now. This is a blog that celebrates all aspects of diverse writing, diverse characters, and the continuous push for own voices and marginalized writers. Every child/teen/person deserves to see themselves on the page.) I have hope that YA Lit will continue to harness respect from other genres, and that when I talk to people about what I write, I’m not ashamed to tell the truth.

That, alone, is a post for another time. Which makes me excited for all of the things I want to write about more in-depth.

Anyway, for the past nine months–at this point, ten–I have been writing a YA contemporary novel. For now, I’m keeping the details and title to myself. It was a big step, going from writing fantasy to writing contemporary. I spent a lot of time researching YA contemporary novels in order to better understand how they told their stories, because mine is very much a character-driven story. And when you’re used to writing lots of plot, it all just feels. So. Slow.

I took a different approach with this novel. I just wrote. I withheld from my usual habit of editing as I went about forming the draft. And on January 25th, 2018, I finished the first draft at around 3:30 a.m.

It was scary, because this one felt different. It still feels different. Like it has more potential to go places. Of course, it’s not ready yet. It’s been through several read-throughs by other writer friends, a round of editing, as well as structural revisions. It’s about to depart from my inbox to another round of reading by my critique partner. (Who I met through grad school and is an amazing person and writer, btw.)

I guess all of that is why I’m writing this blog. I want to document this journey. The one of finishing a novel, of polishing it, of researching agents and querying. It might be one that ends drastically, but also, there’s a chance I might prevail. It could be the adventure I’ve always dreamed about. Except with maybe less dragons, which is probably the most disappointing thing about it.

In the end, I would love it if you stuck around! Maybe you’re about to embark on this process as well, maybe you’re published, and maybe you’re not a writer at all. Either way, welcome.